After Charlottesville, it is clear once again that one of the most fundamental American tenets—that all human beings are created equal—is nowhere near universally accepted. When white men on the march are nostalgic for a time when blacks and women were subordinate by nature, it rightly stokes our anger.
For the most implacable opponents of equality, differences in abilities or appearance or affiliation count for most. It seems doubtful that a philosophical argument that humans are equal will do the trick on its own. In fact, it has been strikingly hard to win over opponents of the proposition that all people are of equivalent worth in some morally pivotal sense. That doesn’t mean the argument is not worth making. Yet as Jeremy Waldron ends up showing in his new book, it is not simple to establish it.
Waldron is one of the leading legal and philosophical thinkers at work today and one of the most lucid. That Waldron never shies away from complications is part of what makes his quarry so elusive and his new book hard going at times, in spite of Waldron’s masterful guidance. Most of One Another’s Equals is given over to establishing distinctions. Correctly framing the problem may not solve it. But Waldron supposes it could help.
An excellent reason to regard human beings as equal would be that God made them that way (assuming he did). And Christian readers will be especially interested to know that the chapters in this book were originally given as a set of the famous Gifford Lectures, which stretch back to the nineteenth century and require the lecturer to engage in “natural theology,” as illustrious figures from William James to Reinhold Niebuhr to Josiah Royce have done before Waldron. Among Roman Catholics, Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor have gone to Scotland to take their turn in the role. But Waldron reports that he does not want to make it easy on himself, by proclaiming some article of personal faith. Philosophers are also, as he testifies, “a little shy” about introducing religion into the discussion.
Given people’s differences, Waldron starts by thinking about what it would take to conclude they are nevertheless all equal. He cites forgotten English thinker Hastings Rashdall for thinking otherwise. Rashdall, who himself received an invitation to give the Gifford lectures, lived when whites established a global color line, and believed in big disparities between whites and non-whites. For Rashdall, they were so pronounced that the inferior had to serve—and if necessary perish—to promote the interests of the superior. It is equally disturbing that, even when they have not been racists, most thinkers in Western history have believed that there were chasms of distinction among different kinds of human beings. Plato thought so, and Aristotle too. Only modern times made the contrary view more prevalent, even as new forms of belief in basic hierarchy, such as scientific racism, also become common.
Waldron starts by distinguishing two arguments he will have to win: one in favor of “continuous” equality and one in favor of “distinctive” equality. “Continuous” equality means that there are no differences important enough among humans to forbid our commitment to the basic equality of all. It does not necessarily follow from continuous equality that human beings have some “distinctive” or unique feature that sets them off from all other beings. But if such a feature existed, it would provide a less negative reason to grant all human beings equal status. It would also make it easier to grant that human equality is morally important. Slugs may all be continuous with each other, but I can still crush them under my boot. Humans may need to be not just equal but have equally high standing.