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Bernard Williams on the idea of equality


To: Stephen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bernard Williams on the idea of equality
Date: 26 September 2007 12:02

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 17 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy paper, in response to the question:

'Williams distinguishes between two elements in the idea of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of respect. What is the difference between these? Is there any reason to think that there could be a problem in practice of combining equality of opportunity with equality of respect?'

This is an excellent piece of work which shows that you have really grappled with the issues that Williams raises in his provocative essay.

It should go without saying that if this question came up in an exam, you would not have the time to spend on sketching too much background. However, you have stuck to the question very well, and even the reference to Nozick, which had me reaching for my pencil, does seem to be sufficiently motivated, given that Williams is discussing the right to different forms of equality and not merely different definitions.

It is very hard to find anything to disagree with in your essay. However, two main issues emerge which you might think about.

The first concerns what you say in part I about the Golden Rule(s). Nowhere does Williams assert the Golden Rule, even implicitly. Indeed, it could be argued that the Golden Rule is useless as a weapon against the inequalitarian. I may strongly believe that one should always strive to win, and that losers should be treated with contempt. If I do lose, I would feel that the contempt I received was indeed well deserved. This is an example which Kant would use against the idea that the Categorical Imperative is merely a version of the Golden Rule, because it ignores the point about 'transcendental equality' to use Williams' term. No-one deserves contempt in any possible circumstances, but only just treatment, rewards for good deeds and punishment when merited.

(In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant discusses the Golden Rule and raises the objection that it reduces moral duty to an empirical question about how this or that person 'would feel', while the categorical imperative is a law of reason which applies independently of psychological considerations.)

What Williams does refer to is the idea of 'providing a reason'. Differences in treatment (e.g. between whites and blacks) would have to be motivated by a reason; moreover, such a reason cannot merely be arbitrary (as implied by certain views of ethics which would allow, 'You must always eat an egg for breakfast,' to be a moral principle provided that you were prepared to universalize it). But no such reason can be given, because skin colour is an irrelevant consideration.

What Williams is doing, in effect, is applying Leibniz' 'Principle of Sufficient Reason' to the sphere of action. This does not generate a moral code all by itself, but arguably acts as a necessary requirement for any possible moral code. In other words, in order to address the question of equality, it is not necessary to have formulated a complete code of ethics. Codes of ethics which differed in important points of detail could still (in principle) agree on the question of equality. (We don't know this for sure, this is merely one possible outcome of the investigation of the nature of equality.)

My other point concerns Williams' discussion of a 'hierarchical society'. It seems very likely to me that Williams is in fact thinking of a particular famous essay, 'My Station and Its Duties' by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies') which presents a powerful and moving case for a society where everyone knows his place and is content. (The old children's hymn, 'All things bright and beautiful' comes to mind.) Bradley was fully aware that this blissful state of affairs is potentially unstable - a point which Williams exploits. In the essays following 'My Station' Bradley goes on to explain how 'cosmopolitan morality' undermines this 'organic' vision of society.

However, that said, it could be argued that some version of Bradley's vision is required if the conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of respect is to be resolved. Materialism, the competition for status, the cult of celebrity all act as distractions which prevent us from seeing the value of accepting one's station without feelings of jealousy or resentment. A meritocracy has its advantages in making maximum use of the available human potential. But then why is doing things to the maximum so important? Other, more traditional, ways of assigning citizens to their station might turn out to lead to less conflict.

I am not seriously advocating this; only pointing out that an argument needs to be given. At any rate, Williams' own argument seems very inadequate: 'Once, however, one accepts the further notion that the degree of man's consciousness about such things as his role in society is itself in some part of the product of social arrangements, and that it can be increased, this ideal of a stable hierarchy must, I think, disappear.' Why? Isn't that the very question at issue?

All the best,