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Bernard Williams on political equality


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bernard Williams on political equality
Date: 22nd September 2010 13:16

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 12 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What, according to Williams, are the significant respects in which human beings can be counted as all alike? Does a consideration of the respects in which human beings can be counted as all alike provide a basis for the ideal of political equality?'

This is a well-argued essay, although I wonder whether you have given more than what the examiner was looking for. What you offer is a stringent critique of Williams' views, with references to criticisms of Nozick and Dworkin, and you have gone some way to making your case. What the examiner wanted (I suspect) was more in the way of exposition, explaining how according to Williams a tension arises between the idea of equality of respect and the idea of equality of opportunity, and how these to some extent conflicting ideals arise out of our philosophical notion of what it 'is to be human'.

I find this a very difficult question. Not mentioned in his paper, in the background to Williams' discussion is a famous essay by F.H. Bradley, 'My Station and Its Duties' (in his 'Ethical Studies') where Bradley argues passionately for the view of society which Williams alludes to when he says (p.80) 'On could, I think, accept this [sc. regarding men from the 'human point of view'] as an ideal, and yet favour, for instance, some kind of hierarchical society, so long as the hierarchy maintained itself without compulsion, and there was human understanding between the orders.'

In the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' -- 'The rich man in the castle, The poor man at the gate, God made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate' -- there is an appeal to God's plan for man, with which we should just acquiesce. On Bradley's view, you don't need God to justify inequality (although Bradley was a theist). The 'social organism' requires it, just as a human body requires different organs to each perform the role allotted to them in order to function successfully. Man only attains his 'self-realization' in the social organism.

What is wrong with Bradley's vision of necessary inequality? (He himself later questions the vision in a later essay in the same book.) We also need to consider Nietzsche's resurrection of the Aristotelian notion of 'virtue' which has nothing in common with egalitarianism (and also appeals to an implicitly 'organic' view of society).

Williams doesn't even begin to address these challenges, but starts at an assumed point where we are broadly in agreement that equality is something worth aiming for. I agree that it is a fully legitimate question to ask, Why? However, Williams' aim IS more modest (otherwise he would have to engage with Bradley and Nietzsche). His task in this paper is to look for difficulties/ tensions in the idea of equality, and to some extent I think he succeeds in that aim.

In paragraph one of your essay you jump straight in and accuse Williams of smuggling in an illicit appeal to the 'political right' to equality (of need satisfaction). Talk of 'rights' is Nozick territory. Williams couches his discussion in terms of reasons, or what is 'rational' or 'irrational'. It is important to note the difference. Rights (by definition) are overriding considerations. Whereas citing something as a reason for action (as your pain is a reason for my action of offering you an aspirin) doesn't imply any right. It's my aspirin, and I can choose to dispose of it as I wish.

Some reasons may be more compelling than others -- 'It's mine' is a very compelling reason -- but in any country where there is taxation no-one has a right to keep all he/she owns for themself.

My main difficulty with Williams is understanding what he means by 'respect'. He accepts that it is a complex and difficult to analyse notion. But is it even coherent, in the way that he formulates it? We've thrown Kant's 'transcendental equality' out the window. When I respect you as an 'end' and not 'merely as a means' what exactly does this entail? I would argue that what I am required to do is (as Williams states) consider how you see things, but more than this, to be prepared to justify, or at least attempt to justify, my actions in terms which you can understand: in short, to be prepared to engage you in moral dialogue.

It follows that the redistribution of resources required for equality of opportunity (or, more modestly, in order to increase equality of opportunity) is one that has to be negotiated. It involves the giving and accepting of reasons, of the kind that Williams describes. To seek to impose it without negotiation is indeed one of the characteristic marks of authoritarian regimes.

You quote Dworkin as stating that 'it might be better to abandon the idea [of equality] altogether and focus more sharply on practical measures to reform society'. The way I read this, the notion of 'equality' plays less of a role in the discussion -- we don't have a clear 'measure of equality' to appeal to in making political choices -- but the very fact that we are prepared to go about this through the democratic process shows that equality is an ultimate presupposition, as indeed it is, on a personal level, in the very process of conducting a moral dialogue.

All the best,