Equality : Collaboration

Once the telos of a political community is regarded not only as that of respecting each of its members as an autonomous moral agent, but also as providing some protection against our basic vulnerability, one can go on to problematize and scandalize social structures that induce vulnerability. Contrary to a common objection, we find this idea does not necessarily entail a “victimized” view of people, denying their being active political agents that seek to freely institute a community of equal citizens among equals.

Instead, we believe that recognizing our shared ontological vulnerability implies a different interpretation of the human being qua zoon politicon, according to which a political community means not only a republican community, but also one that aims to struggle against injurious (vulnerability-inducing) relations among its members. On this view, inegalitarian social relations, economic structures, cultural norms and so on are to be criticized not as forms of violating people’s rights or of depriving them of what is rightfully theirs (good, labor, or anything else). Instead, the question whether these are egalitarian or inegalitarian is to be interpreted as the question whether some are systematically more adversely affected than others.

The point of departure for thinking about equality becomes the recognition of the fundamental mutual codependence of all human beings: the fact that they are always in some way vulnerable vis-à-vis each other. The egalitarian concern this gives birth to is then formulated by such questions as whether the relations of codependence human beings institute among themselves are exploitative or not, injurious or not; whether they seek to equally reduce everyone’s degree of vulnerability, or whether they instead promote a pattern in which some are made less vulnerable at the expense of others.

4. Conclusion

Our discussion began by pointing to the constitutive tension between the intuitive and allegedly extra-political (or at least, the not-uniquely political) nature of the concept of equality, and the need to qualify this concept in order precisely to turn it into a political principle. This qualification, in turn, always relies on some network of perceptions regarding the structure of society, the place individuals occupy within it, and in previous eras, the relation between the social world and the afterworld.

We saw how in modernity the concept of equality was translated into the idea of political equality or equal citizenship. We then saw how this view of equality requires further qualification through the question of what is to be regarded as scandalous inequality; and how this question, in turn, requires a further qualification of the concept of inequality through a series of additional concepts, such as (but not limited to) exploitation. Although the conceptual move presented here is far from exhausting the debate over equality, we hope we have been able to point to some fundamental transformations that are required in the common understanding of the concept, its historical dynamic, and its functioning as an organizing principle of the political field.

First, we sought to put our finger on the unique nature of the concept, namely on the fact that it serves both as a political principle and in extra-political contexts, and that it seeks to base politics on a form of rationality that relies on an intuition of consistency (equal relation to equals). We went on to argue in favor of a different kind of historical view of equality (which we applied mainly to the period of the formation of modernity): a view that examines the history of equality through the question of how new forms of outrage over the lack of equality arose; that is, how come social conditions began to be perceived as short on equality. Finally, we sought to pinpoint the heart of the contemporary debate over the nature of the idea of a political community of equals, and to highlight the required shift towards rethinking inequality as structural: a shift that in turn requires rethinking various patterns of structural inequality, such as exploitation, and reestablishing the principle of equality on the basis of the concept of vulnerability.


This article was jointly written by the four authors listed below:

Yehonatan Alsheh. Postdoctoral Fellow, History Department, University of the Free State, South Africa.

Dani Filc, Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University.

Naveh Frumer, PhD Candidate, Philosophy Department, The New School for Social Research, and the Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University.

Itay Snir, Department of Philosophy and the Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University, and the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication, the Open University of Israel. Co-editor of Mafte’akh: Lexical Review of Political Thought.


Published on June 2, 2013

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