Equality : Collaboration

1. What is Equality?

In his definition of equality for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, author Stefan Gosepath emphasizes that equality does not imply strict identity.4 Such identity can only exist between a thing and itself, whereas equality presupposes some difference between two compared things. Socrates already expresses this idea in the Phaedo:

Look at it also this way: do not equal stones and sticks sometimes, while remaining the same, appear to one to be equal and to another to be unequal? . . . Do they seem to us to be equal in the same sense as what is Equal itself? Is there some deficiency in their being such as the Equal, or is there not?5

Put differently, to say that two things are more equal or less equal is meaningless if one conceives of equality as mathematical identity. It is only meaningful if one keeps in mind that, in reality, equality is a relation between different things. Equality as such does not simply exist “out there”: reality consists only of differences. Any principle of equality is thus the product of a human view, of some interest in comparison or equalization; an attempt to apply some abstract standard of identity on an otherwise varied, fluctuating reality. Such a standard can never be fully realized, and hence every determination of equality, every demand for equalization, implies a decision according to which certain differences are to be deemed irrelevant in some particular context.6

This is why Gosepath refers to equality as an “incomplete predicate,” in the sense that equality is always equality of something. Every act of comparison between two things requires a third element of comparison (tertium comparationis), in relation to which the two can be deemed equal. Louis Pojman further argues that every normative (and one might add: political) claim for equality should be construed as a four-part relation: two things are equal in some third aspect, and hence deserve an equal share of some fourth element.7

The principle of equality expresses a proportion that can be captured by this simple formula, and political disagreements over equality can thus by regarded as disagreements over the substantive contents of each of its four variables—contents without which equality becomes an empty concept. Aristotle makes a similar point when he highlights the connection between equality and justice, arguing that the latter opens up questions regarding what is to be equalized, on what basis, and according to which measure.8 In other words, in political discourse, the concept of equality never stands by itself: it must be qualified by additional concepts in order to turn into a political principle.

But even short of such qualification, the concept of equality, as we suggested earlier, is not entirely without meaning, for even then it implies some demand: the demand for the equal treatment of equals, namely for consistency—a demand that appeals to a certain form of rationality. It would be wrong, however, to assume, with Pojman, that such formal equality, this appeal to consistency-based rationality, is simply a common presupposition of the political as such. It is enough to recall that there are political claims that simply do not rely—at least not explicitly—on any notion of equality (or rationality for that matter), but rather, for example, on an appeal to brute force or to some cosmic or theological order.

The construal of political claims in terms of equality should thus be regarded as an effort to grant rational form to such claims. Instead of the presupposition that the rationality embedded in the concept of equality as such is a necessary, not to say trivial aspect of the political, we have to realize that the appeal to equality as a basis for political claims-making implies a decision in favor of a particular form of rationality as an organizing principle of the political field. A political claim that appeals to equality seeks legitimation by way of distinguishing itself from statements that express arbitrary caprice or mere interests, referring instead to rational terms that everyone, in principle, could understand and accept. Conversely, a political claim regarding lack of equality serves as a way to delegitimize and scandalize certain differences, and to present them as wrongs.

In other words, since equality as such does not simply exist “out there,” the concrete content given to the variables of the above equation—including on what basis the equals are equal, and what the object to be equally distributed between them is—are part and parcel of the egalitarian view in question. This moment of decision, which is at the basis of every statement or demand for equality, is always to some extent arbitrary and never fully justifiable. Contrary to John Locke’s famous statement that the “equality of men by nature” is “evident in itself, and beyond all question,” the idea that all humans are equal—much like the view that equality should be limited to certain groups of people, or that it should rather be extended to non-human animals—involves certain choices and decisions that appeal to a reasoning that cannot but be partial and open to contestation.9

What applies to the subjects of equality applies just as well to the object of equalization, which can range from economic goods to political rights, social status, or physical accessibility. Étienne Balibar, for example, shows how the modern concept of citizenship is regarded as the universal right to demand the status of equal citizen. This, in turn, implies the demand to regard differences hitherto deemed natural as inequalities that ought to be eliminated; in other words, to recognize and institutionalize new forms of equality.10 This seemingly endless range of content that the concept of equality can assume allows the egalitarian view to expand from where it has already taken hold to additional areas. It gives birth to a historical dynamic that generates more and more varied political claims, all of which present themselves as expressions of such consistency-based rationality.

Yet even this expansive tendency does not imply that the egalitarian view has stood at the basis of every political claim throughout all times. On the contrary, the historic lesson is that the status of the egalitarian view vis-à-vis other patterns of political claims-making has itself always been subject to change.

The principled demand for political equality (whatever its particular content might be) is itself the subject of an ongoing political struggle that has never decisively ended, and that to a large extent carries on today much more intensively than before: a struggle against political worldviews that seek to preserve inequalities between groups of people by presenting these as mere differences, thereby preserving certain social and political structures that rely on these differences (as opposed to the latter being a mere accidental byproduct of the former). Thus, a genuinely political understanding of equality, especially in this day and age, calls for a historical account of the conditions of its emergence as a major player on the political stage.

4. Stefan Gosepath, “Equality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/equality.

5. Plato, Phaedo, 65 (74b, d).

6. The claim that people are not equal by nature, while far from trivial, does not yet imply an answer to the question whether equality is a natural thing or a human product. The latter question involves the debate whether people are equal independently of the political framework in which they exist or whether they are to be considered equal only relative to such a framework. No side in the debate, however, argues that there are absolutely no differences between people. That is, both sides agree that to treat people as equal means actively ignoring certain differences between them. Hobbes, for example, famously regarded all humans as equal in the sense that, although there are physical and mental differences between them, what is relevant is only the fact that they are equally capable of killing each other under certain conditions. See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 82. Hannah Arendt provides a different account of natural inequality versus political equality, writing that: “The equality attending the public realm is necessarily an equality of unequals who stand in need of being ‘equalized’ in certain respects and for specific purposes. As such, the equalizing factor arises not from human ‘nature’ but from outside.” See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998), 215.

7. Louis P. Pojman, “Introduction,” in Equality: Selected Writings, ed. Louis P. Pojman and Robert Westmoreland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1-16.

8. See Aristotle, Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.), 85-86 (Book 3, Ch. 12; 1282b): “But the political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit. Now everyone holds that what is just is some sort of equality… For justice is something to someone, and they say it should be something equal to those who are equal. But equality in what and inequality in what, should not be overlooked. For this involves a problem and political philosophy.” See also Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 95 (Book 5, Ch. 3; 1131a): “Since the unjust person is unequal and what is unjust is unequal, it is clear that there is also a certain middle term associated with what is unequal. And this is the equal… It is necessary, therefore, for the just to involve at least four terms: the persons for whom it happens to be just are two, and the things involved—the matters of concern—are two. And there will be the same equality for the persons and the things involved: as the latter (the things in the given circumstances) are related, so also are the former.”

9. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 8 (Chapter II Sect. 5).

10. This rather laconic description already demonstrates the way Balibar ties together the concepts of equality, liberty, and citizenship, which he expresses through such phrases as “equaliberty” (égaliberté) and “citizen-subject.” See Étienne Balibar, “‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Rights of the Citizen’,” in Masses, Classes, Ideas (New York: Routledge, 1994), 46–50; and “Citizen Subject,” in Who Comes after the Subject?, ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York: Routledge, 1991), 33-57. Although his views on the matter are quite different, Rawls too understands equality as the status of being an equal citizen, and uses the phrase “equal liberty” to express the first of the two principles of justice he develops.

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