Will Class Become Caste and Birth Become Destiny?

JeremyWaldronPortraitIn a stimulating opening Gifford Lecture tonight, Professor Jeremy Waldron emphasised the urgency of not only eradicating ‘surface inequality’ in public legal relations, but in carrying out a theological and philosophical examination of what may underpin human equality in a world where ‘grotesque differences in economic lives’ create the risk of ‘leech and leak’ to undermine our commitment to a common humanity. We re-assure ourselves that the ‘surface inequality’ between rich and poor is compatible with an inviolate ‘basic human equality’ which underlies our mutual existence. But is that weakening in our society, such that the view may emerge that ‘the poor are not fully human’ and ‘only the prosperous live fully human lives’? Is there a danger now that a ‘conditional’ legal status due to the vicissitudes of life, such as that of an African-American in jail, becomes re-inforced as a ‘sortal’ status of permanent identity to delineate rights and all human potential, in like kind to the evils of slavery or apartheid in the past?

Professor Waldron began by emphasising that his lecture series would consider an equality ‘high and independent of the merits and deservings of an individual’. It would move beyond notions of economic equality in political philosophy to delve deeper towards consideration of an often pre-supposed ‘basic human equality’, otherwise described as ‘human worth’, ‘human dignity’, or in Dworkin’s terminology, ‘the principle of equal concern and respect’. He asserted that human equality must deny ‘sortal’ status as a valid mode of distinction, emphasising that ‘we are a single status society’ – ‘a caste society, but just one caste’. His investigation in the lecture series will consider the religious account of equality as illuminating the secular approach, but without shirking from gross distortions of the ideal from either perspective.

Using one such distortion as an illumination of what we are denying when we say that we are ‘one another’s equals’, Professor Waldron investigated the ‘deep philosophical racism’ of Rev. Hastings Rashdall, an Oxford philosopher and Anglican priest writing in the early 20th Century. Rashdall wrote that ‘the life of one sentient being may be more valuable than the life of another on account of its potentialities’ as ‘capacity does matter’. Thus, ‘the lower Well-being – it may ultimately be the very existence – of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed’ for the possible higher life of a smaller number of ‘white men’.

We need to elaborate and articulate why Rashdall was profoundly wrong. Professor Waldron identified our desire to oppose any ‘comparable discontinuities’ as Rashdall had suggested, of a distinction in the ‘human to human realm’, in comparison with those that may exist in the ‘human to animal realm’. In other words, in important categorisations that will thread through the lecture series, Professor Waldron emphasised ‘continuous equality’ without discontinuity of ‘human to human’ unlike ‘human to animal’, and beyond that towards a ‘distinctive equality’ which might elevate human equality to a higher plane.

‘Food for thought’ indeed! What is your reaction to this engaging precursor to the Gifford series? Two questions occur in particular from tonight, on which your views would be very welcome:

  1. As Professor Waldron asked, why are Rashdall’s views ‘obviously wrong’ and so offensive to us? Is it only the overt racism? Or the tone and complacency? Or the anti-utilitarianism of sacrificing many for the good of a few? Or do you agree we must go deeper towards notions of ‘continuous’ or ‘distinctive equality’ to fully express our strong opposition?
  2. Do you share Professor Waldron’s fear of a danger of ‘leech and leak’, such that we might soon become ‘two nations unintelligible to one another’, paying ‘lip service rather than actual service to basic human equality’? Will a new ‘sortal status’ mean that ‘birth becomes destiny’? How imminent is that danger in our society? Is it actually happening now and, if so, how?

Over to you….

4 thoughts on “Will Class Become Caste and Birth Become Destiny?

  1. To take up your second question, I think the answer very much depends upon whether we consider equality to be a legal or social value, and, if both, whether the concept of equality functions the same way in both domains.

    My own feeling is that equality is, largely speaking, a legal concept, the concept that, before the state and before the law, like cases should be treated alike, and different cases should be treated differently. In this respect, equality is an outworking of what is sometimes called ‘natural justice’. To take it negatively, one’s wealth, social status etc should not affect the way in which the state and the legal system treat you.

    In the social realm, the picture is far more difficult, and I am not sure if equality really exists outside of the protection of the law. This is because, as a matter of fact, society does accord more value to some groups than others. For example, rude or obnoxious people are generally considered to be inferior to the sociable and kindly-natured, in the sense that they are undesirable, reprehensible, and firmly ‘other’. Their ‘equal human dignity’ is purely abstract in such situations. If our justice system became degraded, the safety of such persons may become a serious concern, as they are, as a matter of fact, not considered to have as much equal worth as other groups. I would say that the same phenomenon is currently seen in relation to some sections of the poor. There are a raft of popular programmes – Jeremy Kyle, Judge Rinder etc – which consist of eloquent, wealthy white men judging the lifestyles and lack of education of the poor. Where is the concept of equality here? Or, if it is still present, is it almost meaningless?

    Indeed, we might extend these concerns to law itself. If one were being cynical, one might say that the same phenomenon is evidenced in many of our criminal courts. Anyone with a background in law, or who has served on a jury, cannot help but feel uncomfortable at times that, almost always, the defendant is from one socio-economic background while the judge, fiscal, and defense counsel are from another. The only hope for equality in such a situation, to return to my earlier point, is that the social and economic background of the defendant will not be taken into account when judging guilt, even if these social and economic factors, as a matter of fact, will very often have contributed greatly to the defendant’s appearance in the dock.

    I will be interested to see whether or not Professor Waldron explores the differences between legal and social or moral understandings of equality in future lectures.


  2. Interesting that the “embarrassing” challenge by Rev Hastings Rashdall was about the legitimacy of a distinction between humans and other animals, and that part of the rationale for overcoming this touches on the theological (i.e. everyone is equal in the eyes of God), as one might expect for Gifford lectures. Later this prompted me to consider two issues related to animals within theology which pose further challenges: the persistent issue of whether dogs, cats and other cherished but departed pets can enter the kingdom of heaven, as opposed to others of God’s creatures (e.g. insects, slugs, crocodiles and, one imagines, all sea life) which has been a source of some intellectual and theological discomfort and contortion for generations; and also the profound series of knots which the Abrahamic religions tie themselves over pigs.

    Judaism and Islam, of course, prohibit the consumption of pork. Although the Old Testament also implores against touching the skin or consuming the flesh of swine (in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy), either because it is unclean, or perhaps because it shares a cloven hoof with the Devil, there appears to be no surviving Christian imprimatur against bacon or ham, at least not one that is widely observed. Whatever may have been the utility of avoiding this gastronomic practice in the Middle East during the Stone Age, because of the conditions in which pigs were kept and the risk of disease or illness, that is perhaps not the same as an objective moral distinction between the human consumption of the pig and of other animals.

    The miracle of feeding the five thousand implies that Jesus had no issue with the consumption of fish, and of course the Catholic branch of Christianity promoted doing so on Fridays as a symbolic penance to commemorate the crucifixion; but this was as a sacrifice to forgo eating warm-blooded meat of other animals. The basic point is that the major religions (with some restrictions) seem to accept as normal the keeping of pets as property and other animals to work the land, and the consumption of animals by humans for food. Is this an example of a theological view that humans are distinctively equal? What is the moral basis for this (apart from the instruction early in Genesis that man, made in the image of God, was to have dominion over the Earth and the flora and fauna within it?) – and can that be objectively justified?


  3. Very much enjoyed the lecture. In reference to the second question, Danny Dorling makes a compelling argument in his recent writing on the issue of inequality that a separation is occurring in equal treatment and worth. In his book ‘Injustice’, for example, he notes that prejudice has become natural in how the wealthy view the poor – that ‘the poor are somehow inherently inferior’ – and as a result seek to ensure that their children do not mix with children of the poor. This has led in some parts of the US and the UK to an educational segregation as class mixing is becoming more limited. As Dorling suggests whereas in the past the wealthy would talk about the poor in terms of ‘stock’, this happens less so now, but still goes on implicitly – by equating talent and capability to wealth in order to justify the vast inequality which exists.


  4. It is a brilliant provocation to open a lecture series on equality by considering the case of Rev. Hastings Rashdall. I’ll gladly take up your first question: why are Rashdall’s views ‘obviously wrong’ and offensive to us? I do so by leaning on the work of Gary Dorrien, a Professor of Social Ethics at Columbia University, NY.

    First, it is important to recognise the significance of Rashdall, a man known as ‘England’s leading theological liberal of his generation’. He is personally described as ‘high-minded, earnest, erudite, and deeply pious…dedicated to making theology modern’. Moreover, a guiding axiom for Rashdall comes uncomfortably close to that held by this year’s Gifford lecturer: the equality principle claims that ‘every human being is of equal intrinsic value, and is therefore entitled to equal respect’ (from ‘The Theory of Good and Evil’). I appreciate that Prof. Waldron wants to distance himself from Rashdall, but he could have followed his superb initial instinct by probing Rashdall’s work beyond the two later inflammatory quotations, acknowledging a similar base commitment. Then we can more carefully discern what Dorrien calls the ‘savage irony’ of a racism that ruins a ‘compelling and sophisticated work of moral theory’.

    It is Rashdall’s qualification of the equality principle that shows where savagery might begin. His principle of justice claims ‘that the good ought to be preferred to the bad, that men ought to be rewarded according to their goodness or according to their work’. This becomes intermingled with the fact that for Rashdall ‘higher forms of well-being’ were not only distinct from lower forms of well-being but were not accessible to lower ‘sorts’ of person (Waldron notes this latter point as a contrast to J.S. Mill). Rashdall thus begins to undercut his equality principle even though it is a formulation at the ‘basic’ level. He is, then, a figure who should trouble us far more: what are the ways in which we are liable to hold a principle of base equality while at the same time making all sorts of ‘utility’ decisions that betray that very commitment without our notice?

    In other words, Waldron’s point about a ‘leakage from conditional to sortal’ status is remarkably incisive in light of a fuller consideration of Rashdall. I would go further, in fact, to say that there is no boundary in the first place: we can speak of sortal equality only insofar as we live equality out conditionally. After all, Waldron’s source for these two headings does not draw a distinction: the Book of Common Prayer intercedes by uniting ‘all sorts and conditions’ of human beings, going on to speak of distinctions only through the confession of faith or circumstances of affliction and necessity. I hope that Waldron, having set up this initial sortal / conditional distinction, will continue to dig away at it until the dam bursts. Our apparently unspoken commitment to base equality must be questioned more thoroughly in light of our compromised ‘conditioning’.

    The claim that Rashdall’s racism is seen as ‘obviously wrong’ today is very interesting, because in his own time those thoughts seemed evident to most audiences. Rashdall apparently did not elaborate arguments for his asides on ‘lower races’; his views were widespread enough that they often functioned as uncontroversial illustrations to reinforce other points. We need to continually remind ourselves that these views were put forth slightly over a hundred years ago in as enlightened an institution as Oxford. As Waldron’s examples are largely from America it is important to note our own trajectory of guilt in Britain.

    I’ll end with a comment on the spatial language of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’. The distinction is clearly significant for Rashdall, for whom divine revelation can be better seen in the more ‘developed’ intellect and moral consciousness. This partly guides his Christology as he departs from the theory of the atonement as substitution or ransom towards claiming the cross as an event of exemplary love and moral influence, even drawing humanity towards ‘deification’. That Rashdall’s theology could coexist alongside his racism may be merely contradiction, but it should lead us to interrogate the kind of spatial language we use for both God and humanity, particularly in light of the Christ event. In natural theology, terms for God such as ‘higher being’ or ‘supreme power’ may be appealing for their generic range, but what implications might they have for human equality in search of ascent? How do the implications change when we speak instead of Christ as the one who ‘lowered’ himself from equality with God, assuming not only the form of a slave but bearing the sin undergirding the unjust structures from which we still benefit?


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