Deep Equality

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Joshua Rothman:

“In Waldron’s view, though, it’s not a binary choice; it’s possible to see people as equal and unequal simultaneously. A society can sort its members into various categories—lawful and criminal, brilliant and not—while also allowing some principle of basic equality to circumscribe its judgments and, in some contexts, override them. Egalitarians like Dworkin and Waldron call this principle “deep equality.” It’s because of deep equality that even those people who acquire additional, justified worth through their actions—heroes, senators, pop stars—can still be considered fundamentally no better than anyone else. By the same token, Waldron says, deep equality insures that even the most heinous murderer can be seen as a member of the human race, “with all the worth and status that this implies.” Deep equality—among other principles—ought to tell us that it’s wrong to sequester the small children of migrants in squalid prisons, whatever their legal status. Waldron wants to find its source.” (


Joshua Rothman:

“In the course of his search, he explores centuries of intellectual history. Many thinkers, from Cicero to Locke, have argued that our ability to reason is what makes us equals. (But isn’t this ability itself unequally distributed?) Other thinkers, including Immanuel Kant, have cited our moral sense. (But doesn’t this restrict equality to the virtuous?) Some philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, have suggested that it’s our capacity to suffer that equalizes us. (But then, many animals suffer, too.) Others have nominated our capacity to love. (But what about selfish, hard-hearted people?) It would be helpful, on a practical level, if there were a well-defined basis for our deep equality. Such a basis might guide our thinking. If deep equality turned out to be based on our ability to suffer, for example, then Michael and Angela might feel better about giving their daughter Alexis, who risks blindness, more money than her siblings. But Waldron finds none of these arguments totally persuasive.

In various religious traditions, he observes, equality flows not just from broad assurances that we are all made in God’s image but from some sense that everyone is the protagonist in a saga of error, realization, and redemption: we’re equal because God cares about how things turn out for each of us. He notes that atheists, too, might locate our equality in the idea that we each have our own story. Waldron himself is taken by Hannah Arendt’s related concept of “natality,” the notion that what each of us share is having been born as a “newcomer,” entering into history with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.” And yet Arendt herself was pessimistic about the quest for a proof of equality; in her view, the Holocaust had revealed that there was “nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” If that’s true, then equality may be not a self-evident fact about human beings but a human-made social construction that we must choose to put into practice.

In the end, Waldron concludes that there is no “small polished unitary soul-like substance” that makes us equal; there’s only a patchwork of arguments for our deep equality, collectively compelling but individually limited. Equality is a composite idea—a nexus of complementary and competing intuitions.

The blurry nature of equality makes it hard to solve egalitarian dilemmas from first principles. In each situation, we must feel our way forward, reconciling our conflicting intuitions about what “equal” means. Deep equality is still an important idea—it tells us, among other things, that discrimination and bigotry are wrong. But it isn’t, in itself, fine-grained enough to answer thorny questions about how a community should divide up what it has. To answer those questions, it must be augmented by other, narrower tenets.

The communities that have the easiest time doing that tend to have some clearly defined, shared purpose. Sprinters competing in a hundred-metre dash have varied endowments and train in different conditions; from a certain perspective, those differences make every race unfair. (How can you compete with someone who has better genes?) But runners form an egalitarian community with a common goal—finding out who’s fastest—and so they have invented rules and procedures (qualifying heats, drug bans) that allow them to consider a race valid as long as no one jumps the gun. By embracing an agreed-upon theory of equality before the race, the sprinters can find collective meaning in the ranked inequalities that emerge when it ends. A hospital, similarly, might find an egalitarian way to do the necessary work of giving some patients priority over others, perhaps by adopting a theory of equality that ignores certain kinds of differences (some patients are rich, others poor) while acknowledging others (some patients are in urgent trouble, others less so). What matters, above all, is that the scheme makes sense to those involved.

Because maintaining such agreements takes constant work, egalitarian communities are always in danger of disintegrating. Nevertheless, the egalitarian landscape is dotted with islands of agreement: communes, co-ops, and well-organized competitions in which a shared theory of equality is used for some practical purpose. An individual family might divide up its chores by agreeing on a theory of equality that balances quick, unpleasant tasks, such as bathroom-cleaning, with slower, more enjoyable ones, such as dog-walking. This sort of artisanal egalitarianism is comparatively easy to arrange. Mass-producing it is what’s hard. A whole society can’t get together in a room to hash things out. Instead, consensus must coalesce slowly around broad egalitarian principles.

No principle is perfect; each contains hidden dangers that emerge with time. Many people, in contemplating the division of goods, invoke the principle of necessity: the idea that our first priority should be the equal fulfillment of fundamental needs. The hidden danger here becomes apparent once we go past a certain point of subsistence. When Fyodor Dostoyevsky went to military school, he wrote home to ask his land-owning but cash-strapped father, Mikhail Andreevich, for new boots and other furnishings, arguing that, without them, he would be ostracized. Mikhail Andreevich recognized his son’s changed needs and granted his request; he died soon afterward, under mysterious circumstances, and Dostoyevsky came to believe that he had been murdered by the serfs he had overworked. The episode, which helped inspire “The Brothers Karamazov,” also illustrates a core problem that bedevils egalitarianism—what philosophers call “the problem of expensive tastes.” (

More information

Book: One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality,” By Jeremy Waldron.