‘ On Human Alert’ -v- ‘Trees, Teapots, Tigers and Teenagers’

OLD COLLEGE 10-MExploring ‘The Logic of Human Equality’, in his second Gifford Lecture Professor Waldron delved tonight into the technical framework that he saw as an essential pre-requisite of developing in his remaining lectures a coherent and robust validation of the essence of ‘basic human equality’.

  1. Description and Prescription

Professor Waldron began by distinguishing between the ‘descriptive’ content of an idea or principle, or how things are, as compared to the ‘prescriptive’ content, or how it ought to be. The former reflects the presence or absence of fact, and the latter an aim or goal. A concept such as ‘basic human equality’ would thus be ‘prescriptive’, but would also be intrinsically intertwined with the establishment of ‘descriptive’ content.

Firstly, there may be associated ‘descriptions’ relating to the target of a principle, which entail the facts that it evaluates. Principles from ‘basic human equality’, such as ‘equal concern or calculability’; ‘justice’ for all; the existence of ‘human rights’; and ‘respect’ granting autonomy, all require associated ‘descriptive’ facts which define the target: for example, the identification of how people may benefit as a subject of the law or in human rights, or may not do so.

Secondly, ‘descriptive’ statements may also describe the principle’s basis on which it is grounded. Therefore, must we also identity ‘descriptive’ facts of human nature on which ‘continuous equality’ is to be based? When we say on the surface that we work on the premise that we are all equal, we assume the starting point of that assertion is somewhere ‘down there in the foundations’? But ‘is it rock-bottom or not’?

2. Must ‘basic human equality’ have a factual foundation of its own?

Professor Waldron set out how some such as Joel Feinberg have taken the concept of equality as ‘incapable of further investigation’, being a ‘waste of time pragmatically’ to look towards any further descriptive characteristics. Other ‘constructivist’ alternatives would deny the very existence of those characteristics, such as those put forward by:

  • Margaret MacDonald (1947) – value utterances are more like decisions: not a statement of facts but choosing a side – ‘this is where I stand’ – they do not compel others to line up with us.; and
  • Hannah Arendt (1963) – held a political concept of equality whereby we might decide to hold ourselves as equals in order to form a community that guarantees rights, but there is nothing in our common humanity which brings us to do so. In the Holocaust, ‘the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human’.

In answering Arendt, Professor Waldron argued that you cannot simply decide that ‘trees, teapots, tigers and teenagers’ are equal for political ends. There must be something deeper and unique that is related to our constitution as humans. He found it in Arendt’s essay ‘What is Freedom?’ – the ‘natality’ which is present in all human form – a potential of world-making initiative in every newborn – the ‘sheer capacity…to produce new beginnings’. He argues that this is ‘metaphysical, transcendent and of the utmost importance’.

The ‘constructivist’ cannot ignore the logic of ‘supervenience’: in the philosophy of the mind neural properties such as thoughts and ideas will ‘supervene’ over mental properties, and also in moral philosophy a common supervening property will relate to underlying qualities insofar as the latter are shared.

Drawing from that analysis, in Professor Waldron’s view ‘basic human equality’ may possess not only a descriptive target, but also an underlying basis, whilst seeking to avoid the danger of ‘shapelessness’, whereby our pre-conceived notions of human attributes might render equality ‘amorphous’.

3. Is the notion of ‘basic equality’ alternatively ‘trivial’ or ‘redundant’?

Professor Waldron countered such arguments, proposing the importance of the concept in relation to a ‘heritage we are struggling against’.

Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, that ‘everybody will count for one and nobody will count for more than one’ was ‘furiously committed’ to the equality of happiness between individuals. The resulting ‘cost/benefit analysis’ in evaluating consequent effects was, for J.S. Mill, an ‘anterior principle’ of no more than ‘the truths of arithmetic’.

Professor Waldron addressed Joseph Raz’s position that ‘equality’ is ‘redundant’ as actions seemingly based upon the principle can be driven instead by responding appropriately and impartially to need e.g. water for the thirsty or the alleviation of obvious pain.

This ‘response to interest’ without the need of ‘brethren’ might hold some initial attraction in analysing, for example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan might have simply applied moral principles in an ‘immediate, no fuss way’ under a principle of need and aid, as he would to an injured dog. Raz would thus argue there was no doctrine of ‘human equality’ here.

For Professor Waldron, Raz’s undoubted ‘syntactical capacity’ might work in a ‘world of unlimited time and microcosmic discernment’ to address every immediate response to a given situation. But for Professor Waldron, the ‘needs, attributes and concerns’ of every single human in such a situation always present themselves. We are thus ‘on human alert’ when we come across a predicament. He opposes Raz because ‘human beings are a morally interesting entity’. Instead of permitting a focus on perceived differences in capacity, ‘human alert is the superior heuristic’.

Therefore, reliance on a concept of ‘human equality’ is necessary not just in individual action, but in directing principles and policies of political life where the ‘stakes are so high’. In conclusion, all humans are equal in foundational respects – ‘if administering an empire or on the road to Jericho, it is better to go armed with the principle of ‘basic human equality”. In Thursday’s lecture, we will turn to the actual characteristics on which it might be based.

The questions which come to mind from tonight’s session are those which Professor Waldron sought to refute, which you may be drawn to support or counter:

  1. Is an enquiry towards a deeper bed-rock of the concept of ‘human equality’ ultimately futile as it is likely to be without underlying foundation – because it ‘just is’?
  2. Or is the concept even ‘trivial’ or ‘redundant’ when compared to appropriate, impartial moral reasoning and response to need?

Click on ‘Comment’ below to share your thoughts…

One thought on “‘ On Human Alert’ -v- ‘Trees, Teapots, Tigers and Teenagers’

  1. The answer to the first question is complicated, but I would argue that the notion of basic equality is what RG Collingwood would call an absolute presupposition of our legal and political system, and, in addition, a contested part of wider societal norms. As an absolute presupposition, it is not held due to a particular line of deductive reasoning, nor the outcome of some inductive study – however constructed – but is simply assumed. It is, to borrow an image from CS Lewis, basic equality may be like the sun: we do not see it clearly, yet it gives us the light by which we may see everything else clearly.

    That is not to say, however, that reasons cannot be given for this basic equality. Let me give an analogy. The inerrancy of the Bible is an absolute presupposition of conservative evangelical theology. Yet this does not mean that reasons cannot be given for this belief, e.g. the Bible’s harmony, the universal recognition of the Church, the fact it says that it’s God’s Word etc. One can rationalise one’s possession of a belief, even if one does not hold that belief as the outcome of reasoning. I think much the same can be said of basic equality. It is an absolute presupposition of our political and legal system, yet, if one wishes to reflect on the matter, reasons can be given for holding it. In this way, basic equality can be viewed simply as a given – it ‘just is’ – or it can be viewed as a response to certain features of human reality. Both might be correct.

    The danger with absolute presuppositions, however is that they are historically and socially relative. As Rev Rashdall, and the wide array of human rights abuses in the world testify, not all cultures recognise basic equality as most of us in Britain do. The danger with presuppositions is that they can, due to changes in economic, social, and political forces, become contested or even disproved, changing from basic axioms of action to mere hypotheses.

    While it is jumping the gun a bit, the only way – as I see it – to escape this historical and social relativism is to posit a transcendent being who recognises this equality quite irrespective of what anyone thinks about it. Yet, even then, this metaphysical and ontological reality might be hidden from humanity due to moral turpitude, raising a host of epistemological questions. But these issues can wait till another lecture…


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