What is the Basis for Human Equality?

‘One Another’s Equals’ by Jeremy Waldron
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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.

His secular arguments for human equality are interesting but hardly suffice to convince the skeptics, from Plato to Friedrich Nietzsche, let alone America’s “alt-right.”

In a tour of philosophy across the centuries, Waldron considers many possibilities for what features of human beings might establish their continuity with one another and their distinctively high standing. Reason has long been a popular choice in the mix of argument. But Waldron also hastens to add—it is his main contribution—that we are looking for characteristics that come in a distinctively human range. I may have less capacity than you do to reason, or find it harder to engage my moral powers. But the point, Waldron says, is that our capacities differ across a common range that entitles us to view anyone in it as equal and to accord them high standing.

The importance of what he calls a “range property” grounding equality, Waldron contends, is that it allows us to reject the view that any trait that comes in various forms cannot do the work. For example, religious thinkers have claimed that only a “transcendent” feature that everyone has in precisely the same way—for example, if each was equally made in God’s image—could serve to justify their equal standing. Waldron shows this is not so. It is enough that human capacities come within a given range to entitle people to regard themselves as one another’s equals. (As Waldron goes on to acknowledge, this very argument makes it difficult to grant the equality of the profoundly disabled.)

Still, it matters a great deal that Waldron’s book ultimately turns to the Gifford charge of engaging religion. His secular arguments for human equality are interesting but hardly suffice to convince the skeptics, from Plato to Friedrich Nietzsche, let alone America’s “alt-right.”

For this reason, one somewhat cynical way of reading Waldron’s book—even though he insists that religion is an optional extra for egalitarians—is that his true goal is to make it hard for the reader to see how she could sustain her belief in equality without faith. Some years ago, Waldron argued that early egalitarian John Locke, the English philosopher who influenced American founders to announce a new country based on human equality (at least for white males), relied indispensably on Christian premises. Waldron says he does not want to have to do so, and require faith to get the job done. But the fact that he makes the secular case for equality so difficult to make out almost inevitably points him in a religious direction. He goes so far as to suggest there are “possible grounds we might have for thinking that a religious foundation for basic human equality is necessary.”

It is here that the secular may wish for a different approach. Early on, Waldron explains that he is looking for some fact about human beings that makes them equal, whether it is natural or God-given. He rejects the possibility that whether humans have enough continuity with one another and are special enough in their kindred capacities to deserve equal respect is primarily a decision to make rather than a truth to endorse. But put bluntly, morality is constructed in different ways over time and space. It is a scary thought, since if it is up to us to determine whether we want to see one another as equals, we could also choose to go the other way. But it just seems to be the case that universal human equality is a religious view in origin (not that many religious believers have lived out its implications). Secular modernity inherited that faith and indeed tried to make it a living political principle in a way that religious cultures have rarely done, in their tolerance of extraordinary hierarchies. As moralists in other traditions from Alexis de Tocqueville on have contended, basic equality is primarily a historical outcome, not a transhistorical fact.

That we must begin by acknowledging how rare it has been in human affairs for anyone to want a “basis for human equality” does not mean that equality is a mere fiction. That only we moderns have begun to act on it hardly implies it is time to give up. It may suggest, however, that we need less to abstract beyond our place and time for a permanent vision of the way human beings really are than to focus more on how modernity has made belief in human equality something that increasing numbers of people find meaningful. We can even resolve to fight harder for that equality without denying that our ancestors would have railed against it, or worrying that only God can guarantee our beliefs that all humans are both equal and equally special.

One Another’s Equals
The Basis of Human Equality

Jeremy Waldron
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 264 pp.

Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: 

Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Yale University, and is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and Christian Human Rights.

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