Equality : Collaboration

3.4. Beyond the Principle of Equal Moral Worth: Equality of Vulnerability

The series of critical arguments presented here appears to lead to yet a further basic idea of the liberal conception of equality. Starting with Rawls, the vast majority of liberal thinkers—including internal critics such as Anderson—believe that political equality is to be understood in terms of the Kantian idea of treating every person as having equal moral worth. While liberal-political thinkers disagree as to how this principle is to be translated into the political domain, most of them return to this Kantian formulation as the moral foundation of the principle of equality.32

Although it seems almost impossible to deny such a formulation, we believe that the moves we have taken so far suggest that basing the principle of equality on the idea of equal moral worth preserves the same problematic picture of equality typical of early-modernity and enlightenment liberalism: a picture in which the egalitarian view is applied to individuals, whose being precedes the fabric of social interrelations within which they conduct their lives.

Worthy and lofty as it might be, the principle of equal moral worth cannot but promote an ultimately individualistic view, in which these individuals—even when they are perceived as always operating in some social context—can only put forward egalitarian demands form the point of view of autonomous “units of equality,” so to speak. Even those theories that subscribe to a social ontology of relations of co-dependence, and are thus allegedly non-individualistic, find it hard to incorporate this view into their concept of equality, so long as they remain committed to the egalitarian view captured by the idea of equal moral worth.

Our point is that placing the idea of equal moral worth at the basis of egalitarian claims turns away from the systemic understanding of equality we defended above. To be clear, rejecting the idea of equal moral worth does not imply that people ought to be treated as having unequal moral worth, but that the concept of equality is to be understood on a different basis. Here we can only briefly mention what seems to us to be the most promising alternative as of late, namely the idea of equality based on the concept of vulnerability: a concept that emphasizes the fact that the subjects of the egalitarian view are always-already found in some relations of co-dependence. According to this view—which merits a longer discussion—vulnerability, in the double sense of suffering and pain, is an ontological condition of most living organisms, including humans.

This ontological vulnerability implies several things: That all of us are always-already dependent upon each other in one way or another; that social structures (our being-with-others) is not a follow-up but rather a precondition of our individual existence; and that on a basic level we are all equal in being existentially vulnerable (despite the fact that social structures lead to an unequal differentiation in the degree to which we are actually vulnerable).

The fact that we all equally share this ontological vulnerability says nothing about the egalitarian or inegalitarian nature of the social order. Indeed, it can even serve to justify, as it does in Hobbes, the perpetuation of radical inequality between a sovereign rule and the ruled subjects. And yet, insisting on vulnerability as a shared element opens the door to an egalitarian view according to which those social relations that institute, perpetuate, and encourage various hierarchies of vulnerability are regarded as scandalous, and are to be replaced by relations that seek to ensure that the relatively lower vulnerability of some would not depend on the greater vulnerability of others.

Going back to our above discussion of exploitation, the point according to which the scandalous root of exploitation has to do not with the condition the groups in question are brought to, but rather with the very fabric of social relations between them, is to be interpreted on the basis of the idea that such relations generate an inequality between some who are more vulnerable and those who are less vulnerable (to market instabilities, lay-offs, loss of work capacity, financial turmoil, etc). What now stands at the center of the principle of equality is the vulnerability-inducing (injurious, offensive) nature of certain social relations, and its reliance on an unequal “distribution” of vulnerability (where the relative non-vulnerability of some depends upon the relative vulnerability of others)—and not the idea of the equal worth of all moral personas.33

32. The most significant source of this view is what is known as the “humanity formulation” of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.” Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Allen W. Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 46-47. Rawls gives this Kantian formulation (which he regards as a development of Rousseau’s ideas) a contractualist-republican interpretation, as the moral foundation for his theory of political justice. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 179-183, 256, 504-512. Dworkin, despite his deep disagreements with Rawls, agrees with him on this point, namely on “the assumption of a natural right of all men and women to equality of concern and respect, a right they possess not by virtue of birth or characteristic or merit or excellence but simply as human beings with the capacity to make plans and give justice.” See Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 182. For a recent discussion of the principle of political equality that explicitly relies on the idea of equal moral worth, see Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

33. For recent suggestions for regarding vulnerability as a starting point for political thinking see, among others, Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics (London: Routledge, 1997); Martha Fineman, “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 20 (2008): 8-40; Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political and Global (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael Slote, The Ethics of Care and Empathy (Abington: Routledge, 2007); Bryan S. Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

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