Equality : Collaboration

This, in our view, is the result of the fact that equality is a pre-political concept: one that is highly familiar in contexts ranging from everyday use to mathematics and engineering. Whereas concepts such as freedom, justice, state, and authority are distinctly political concepts, existing first and foremost as principles or values in the political arena, the relative clarity that the concept of equality enjoys in extra-political contexts, though not unique to it, appears to have a direct effect on its functioning as a political principle.

Thus, the main thread throughout this essay would be the following tension that marks the attempt to define equality: a tension between the familiar, obvious, intuitive character of equality, with its ongoing correspondence to extra-political, everyday contexts, and the fact that this obviousness is never self-sufficient, namely that it takes some kind of qualification in order to turn equality into a political principle—a qualification that is itself the product of some political decision.

This tension, in turn, gives birth to yet another one: the intuitiveness of equality is what turns it into a particularly effective basis for political claims; yet at the same time, it also nurtures the view that disagreements over equality and inequality are merely disagreements over the employment of a concept whose meaning requires no further elucidation. In other words, the appeal to the obviousness of equality often blurs the fact that the way equality is understood and employed, indeed the very appeal to equality as a political principle, is itself the product of a non-trivial political decision.

Our discussion will not attempt to exhaust the political content or the various debates over the many questions related to equality, let alone offer a comprehensive historical survey of its uses, or an exhaustive genealogy of its various pre-modern origins. Our task remains lexical, in that it seeks to understand the concept of equality and its translation into a political principle. In addition, we wish to offer a critical account of the “egalitarian horizon” that emerges out of some of the contemporary debates surrounding the concept within the framework of liberal thought, broadly construed.

Part one of the essay analyzes the political potency of the concept of equality, pointing to the demand for consistency and rationality embedded in it. Such a demand, we argue, refers to an order of things that is never an ontological given, but rather the product of some human interest, or as we like to put it, the product of some egalitarian view: a view that entails a distinction between certain differences among people that are deemed legitimate and naïve and those that are deemed illegitimate and wrong.

Part two seeks to trace the emergence of the modern egalitarian view, according to which all humans are born equal. It does this by tracing a particular genealogical trajectory: the links between equality, the idea of man being created in the Image of God, and the historical transformations with respect to the relation to death. Part three turns to an examination of three paradigms of equality dominating the landscape of Anglo-Saxon liberal thought in the latter half of the twentieth century: Luck Egalitarianism, the Rawlsian school, and “equality of relations” or “democratic equality.” Building upon the third paradigm’s critique of the former two, we develop three points that we believe better uncover the blind spots in the contemporary debates over the concept. First, we seek to sharpen the idea of unequal social relations through a more accurate definition of structural inequality. Second, we turn to a discussion of the concept of exploitation, which serves as an example for qualifying one particular category of structural inequality. Finally, we argue that going beyond the limits of the predominant liberal image of equality requires going beyond the Kantian-inspired idea of the equal moral worth of all humans.

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