Reconciling Equality and Human Difference


Building on his adoption last week of John Rawls’ concept of ‘range properties’, that above certain thresholds we all can be considered as bearing ‘equal’ moral capacity irrespective of our variation within the range, Professor Waldron tonight concentrated on working through the challenges and implications that would follow. In other words, if the concept of ‘range properties’ is to form the foundation of ‘basic human equality’, what are the depths of resilience it requires in order to stand firm from possible attack? How can it possess the necessary heft to undergird the potentially momentous or troubling practical consequences that would follow if we all are held to attain such properties, such as the equal treatment before the law of totalitarian dictators or terrorists who have committed acts of unquestionable evil like mass murder?

Professor Waldron responded firstly to Richard Arneson’s challenge to ‘range properties’: that the variance in degree of such a property within an individual means that the ‘the task of specifying some threshold level of these abilities…looks hopeless’. No threshold established, thus no basis for qualification within the range. Professor Waldron’s countered that we are ‘not going round with a Geiger Counter’ to assess the extent of the moral capacity of those around us. We notice that people make moral judgments. That fact is important without concerning ourselves with boundaries – all have capacity, albeit that within some people it is ‘muted’. We are struck by the similarity and by our refusal to recognise difference. We do not have to focus upon the threshold, or indeed particular principles – ‘we are looking for a set of range properties, overlapping and countering each other’.

‘Range properties’ would, however, have to be ‘credible’ and ‘motivated’ to be fit for purpose. They could not be intended to destroy difference, but instead must reflect the ‘mutual comprehension of subjective investment’ in a basis of human equality.

The demands upon the conception of ‘range properties’ would also be inevitably onerous if they are to sustain basic human equality. Such equality must be grounded in a way which gives it the strength to carry out the ‘heavy work’. Through ‘connective tissue’, there must be strands between ‘range properties’ and the ‘normative consequences’ of equality such as equal counting, access to justice, and a foundation in rights and equal respect.

Therefore, we have to:

  • Move away from reliance on ‘personal referential circumstances’, such as a blinkered nationalism which would centralise our concept of equality to a particular subset of people; and
  • Accept that a notion of human equality would have to trump all other principles that seem to require preference. When in the face of the brutality of a figure such Stalin or Hitler, or in the ‘war against terror’, we must assert that rights such as to a fair trial still have our ‘unflinching attention’.

This does not demand a ‘bland human uniformity’, but we can instead ‘house’ uniqueness by embracing the ‘sparkle’, as our attention moves back and forth from more generalised ‘range properties’ to their particularities in an individual. The general does not obliterate the particular, nor vice versa. In this way, by focusing on that ‘scintillating’ mode of ‘sparkling distinctiveness’, we might reconcile underlying equality with identity based on difference.

This ‘sparkle’ back and forth may be reflected in such as Hannah Arendt’s idea of ‘natality’, that all humans have the possibility of new creativity which occasionally bursts into fruition, or in Kant’s focus on a common moral capacity which may not always be exercised. It may be seen too in the inter-relationship between Stephen Darwall’s notion that we demonstrate both ‘appraisal respect’ towards another because of our evaluation of that particular individual, as well as ‘recognition respect’ which is based more on a fundamental response to their humanity.

Human merit is unequal, but underlying it is human worth. Any differentiation based on relative merit must respond to constraints of equalised human worth. Those with high ‘merit’ cannot have everything, nor those with low ‘merit’ have nothing.

What do you think of such aspects of ‘range properties’ and equality?

1. Do we see any such restraining balance in our society between merit and worth? Or is our society moving towards an unrestrained meritocracy at the top end based not on a moral range but on markers of achievement, with the underlying human worth of those at the bottom of the meritocracy scale inadequately recognised?

2. Does an extensive moral demerit serve to obliterate human worth so as to suspend equal consideration and rights? For example, did mass murderers such as Eichmann or Barbie deserve a fair trial?

Your views much appreciated by clicking on the ‘Comment’ link below.

Gifford Lectures 2015



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