Res Publica

, 17:211

Need There be a Defence of Equality? Winner of the 2010 Postgraduate Essay Prize


    • Department of PoliticsUniversity of Exeter
PG Essay Prize

DOI: 10.1007/s11158-011-9156-0

Cite this article as:
Nathan, C. Res Publica (2011) 17: 211. doi:10.1007/s11158-011-9156-0


There is an apparent problem in identifying a basis for equality. This problem vanishes if what I call the ‘intuited response’ is successful. According to this response, there is no further explanation of the significance of the feature in virtue of which an individual matters, beyond the bare fact that it is the feature in virtue of which an individual matters. I argue against this claim, and conclude that if the problem of identifying a basis for equality is to be resolved, it is necessary to defend a substantive account of the independent significance of some feature.


EqualityEgalitarianismJustificationExplanationMoral status

The Problem

It is sometimes said that contemporary political theory involves developing the basic egalitarian premise that each of us counts for the same (Dworkin 1983; Kymlicka 2002, pp. 3–5; Nagel 1991; Sen 1992, chap. 1). The libertarian argues that each individual has the same basic set of rights; the egalitarian that each is due the same share of goods; the utilitarian that the interests of each be counted the same. Those—and many other—accounts of justice implicitly accept that it would be mistaken to fail to count individuals as fundamentally equal. However, if political theory is dependent upon this basic egalitarian premise, then it seems to face a difficulty, since we are manifestly not the same. Briefly, the problem is this:

Individuals vary enormously, and often profoundly, on any conceivable scale: there is no significant feature all have exactly in common. However, all count for the same: all are equal. If all count for the same, then all must share some significant feature in virtue of which they count for the same. But this is a contradiction. Individuals vary, and we call them equal.1

In this paper I explore one particular response to that problem. The response draws on the idea that the basic egalitarian premise is foundational. To be a member of the group of equals, an individual must possess some given capacities to some given degree, and there is nothing that can be said to explain or justify this: it is basic. Before discussing that response, I first devote this section and the next to investigating the problem more closely.

There is a small but growing recent literature that addresses the problem directly. Significant contributions include Arneson (1999), Carter (2011), Cupit (2000), Haksar (1979), McMahan (1996), Vallentyne (2006), Waldron (2002), and Williams (1973). The items in this literature vary in which sense of ‘all count for the same’ they put forward. In this respect, some, such as Carter (2011) and Vallentyne (2006), possess a sharp focus, discussing only theories that demand an egalitarian distribution of some good. Others, such as Cupit (2000) and Haksar (1979), are very broad, not giving much specific direction, but leaving it to the reader to interpret ‘individuals count for the same.’ I am concerned with equal moral status. Normative theories explain why some things matter, and some do not; a strong theme is that each of us matters, equally. The question of how we should develop this idea informs many of the arguments I will discuss. ‘Basic equality,’ therefore, will be elaborated in the course of the discussion.

One kind of response to the problem would be to deny that all individuals count for the same, in any sense that would require that individuals share some significant feature. We can distinguish at least two broad accounts of moral status (Buchanan 2009). The interest-based account of moral status says that a being’s moral status depends on how much good there is in its life. The intrinsic value account of moral status says that possession of certain characteristics is sufficient to confer a status which irreducibly applies to the being itself, as a singular entity, persisting over time.

The interest-based account does not require that we count individuals as basic equals. Instead, it treats interests as equals. Thus it does not face the problem I have described: it does not need to identify a feature that individuals share. It might be responded that the interest-based account does treat individuals as equals, in the sense that it counts each interest that each individual has as equal. However, this is a trivial sense of equality, for my purposes here. In the sense in which treating interests equally can be called treating individuals as equals, it is also the case that two individuals are equal to one individual: each interest possessed by a set of any two individuals taken together is counted as equal.2 Whatever it means to treat individuals as equals—and I am deliberately leaving latitude to the interpretation of ‘treatment as equals’ here—it cannot mean that two can count for the same as one. In the interests-based account, it is really only interests that count as equal; individuals play an incidental part, as carriers of interests.3

I am interested in this essay in intrinsic value views, which take moral status as something which is conferred directly upon the individual. Such views, I claim, require an account of why individuals have the same status; if it turns out that we have different levels of the status-conferring property, then they will entail that our status varies correspondingly.4

What makes it tricky for such a view to say that there is a significant feature individuals share, in virtue of which they are equal? A parent who refuses to discriminate between her children will say, ‘all have it in them to achieve the best, at anything they put their minds to.’ But as applied to persons in general, taken very literally, this is groundless. In any area, it seems more than likely that some can achieve more than others. We vary enormously in our capacities to achieve (Williams 1973, p. 234).

Perhaps, though, we should peel away a layer, and look beyond actual capacities to achieve. Instead we might consider some more abstract capacities. It might be claimed that we share some underlying equal intelligence, or sympathy, or resoluteness. However, once again, it does not ring true that we are equal in some such respect. We might respond that ‘the inequalities in abilities we see in the world around us are almost entirely the result not of difference in capacity but in external circumstances’ (Christiano 2008, p. 18). In this case our basic equality becomes hostage to an empirical claim which is both contestable, and which only establishes we are ‘almost’ equal.

We might abstract yet one more level higher, away from any empirical characteristic. Now what are we left with? Must we suppose equal possession of a soul? It would be a considerable embarrassment for many (though not all) if our belief in individuals’ equality turned out to presuppose a full-blown religious or Kantian metaphysics. Even then, the difficulties would not be over. It would still be necessary to offer an epistemology of equality: how could we come to recognise that a being possesses this non-empirical property?

Significance and Arbitrariness

The challenge can be put in the following way. A basis for equality must be a significant feature which we share, but it is exceptionally difficult to describe such a feature. A defender of any particular basis owes us an account of what makes it the feature in virtue of which an individual can count as equal to others. It must be a feature which we are prepared to deem as something that affects an individual’s status, in a way that is fundamental. An example of a property that is not itself normatively significant is the property of naturally having four limbs. This is a property shared by most of the beings which we would typically consider members of the group of equals. But it does not seem to matter that a being naturally has four limbs; it seems normatively irrelevant. More generally, an unsatisfactory account would be one that defines the property simply as membership of some given group. The trouble with both of these positions is that they fall to counterexample, even if they fit with current beings. It is not enough to deny the problem of equality to show that there is some characteristic shared by all individuals. The characteristic can’t be arbitrary; it must be a characteristic we are prepared to apply to further cases.

The concepts of ‘relevance’, ‘significance’ and ‘arbitrariness’ should be fleshed out further. I treat ‘arbitrary’ as the contradictory of ‘relevant’, and I treat ‘significant’ and ‘relevant’ as equivalent. One view of relevance is this: ‘to treat a feature of an action or situation as morally relevant is to apply to the action or situation a moral principle which mentions the feature’ (Hare 1981, p. 89). The most fundamental thing is the principle, not the feature. We don’t work one by one through all the features of the situation, deciding which are and aren’t relevant. Our goal is, rather, to identify the applicable principles. But given, at the outset, that we don’t know which are the correct moral principles to apply, and that we have to start somewhere, we must begin by proceeding by ‘guesswork’ (Hare 1981, p. 89). That is, we do identify some possibly relevant features, accompanied by principles, and we reason about how plausible those principles are. This is a post-normative conception of the moral relevance of features. Features are relevant only in virtue of their being mentioned by valid principles.

The opposite view is a pre-normative conception of moral relevance, whereby principles are valid only in virtue of their referring to relevant features. This view is exemplified by Bernard Williams, in saying it is ‘quite certainly false’ that ‘the question whether a certain consideration is relevant to a moral issue is an evaluative question’ (Williams 1973, pp. 232–233). He thereby holds that to say that race is irrelevant to a hiring decision does not thereby commit one to an evaluative or moral principle about hiring decisions. That race is irrelevant is a truth, says Williams, that is independent of or prior to moral considerations. To act against such a truth would involve ‘a purely arbitrary assertion of will, like that of some Caligulan ruler who decided to execute everyone whose name contained three ‘R’s’ (Williams 1973, p. 233).5

This distinction between different conceptions of significance may be of great consequence. However, I will give a reason at the end of the next section to think that it does not play on the arguments I will make here. We need only have the premise that the feature in virtue of which individuals have status is significant, where ‘significance’ is left open to interpretation.

The Intuited Range Property Response

Having explored the nature of the problem of identifying a basis for equality, I turn now to a possible solution. One kind of characteristic which could serve as a basis for equality is what John Rawls calls a ‘range property’. This is a property which is possessed in virtue of the possession of some level of a variable property (Rawls 1999, pp. 441–449).6 This kind of property would be suitable as a basis for equality because all of us (or most of us) are rational to some degree, or are autonomous to some degree. It seems natural, then, to suggest that the basis of equality is that all of us possess the characteristic of passing a threshold on a given scale of cognitive capacities (even if there are variations in how far each of us passes it).7

How can the defender of such a feature as the basis of equality claim to be offering a significant feature? A range property as the basis of equality faces a series of questions that seem to make a response to this question especially difficult: Where does the threshold get its force; what reason is there not to select a slightly higher threshold, or a slightly lower threshold? Why should possession of more than the minimum be redundant; isn’t it arbitrary and unjust to assign the same moral status to beings that are so different, while at the same time assigning vastly different moral status to beings that are so similar? It is as though height were offered as the determinant of moral status, but that it is also claimed that a being barely over six feet has much greater status than a being barely under six feet. We are owed an account of why that particular height makes so much difference (Arneson 1999).

One way of answering this set of questions would be to offer a substantive range property response. This would give an independent account of the significance of some threshold. In this case, we give an explanation of the significance of the threshold beyond the (proffered) fact that we do accept it. For example, a Hobbesian contractarian might argue that some threshold is significant because it marks the point beyond which an individual is capable of being a mortal threat to others, and is also able to cooperate in the light of the mutual recognition of this threat. This position would need to explain why variations in the capacity to be a mortal threat above the threshold don’t affect the being’s status in the resulting scheme of cooperation. Apart from the Hobbesian response, one could speculate about how substantive responses would run on constructivist, or Kantian, or theological lines.8

However, I am interested here in a different kind of response to this set of questions. I will call this the intuited range property response. This says that there just is some particular level or set of cognitive capacities which forms the threshold above which an individual can rightly claim to be a moral equal. There is no more to say in justification of the importance of this level than ‘this is our practice,’ or ‘these are our values.’ Hence, complaints about the theoretical adequacy of the response are wide of the mark; the first requirement of a theory is that it does not lead us into such a bizarre position as an abandonment of basic equality. It says that the feature is significant, because it is the feature in virtue of which individuals count as equals.9

For example, the range property that Rawls suggests as the basis for equality is the passing of some threshold of moral personality (Rawls 1999, pp. 441–450). Rawls does not make any sustained attempt to explain the location of this threshold. It seems extremely difficult to defend a location. Moral personality is composed of a sense of justice, and the capacity to form a conception of the good. The first of these varies from barely redeemed depravity, to sainthood; the second from animalistic urge, to celestial masterplan. How should we choose the relevant points on these scales? Rawls says that we ‘take moral persons to be characterized by two moral powers,’ and we ‘assume that the parties represent developed moral persons’ (Rawls 1980, p. 525, italics added). We might interpret Rawls’ preparedness in this matter to ‘take’ and to ‘assume’, and his general silence on this issue, as an implicit acceptance of the intuited range property response. On this view, we simply do know, at least roughly, where the threshold is, and there is not the urgent theoretical need to explain its basis that would exist, were it supposed to be the case that the location of the threshold derives from the broader theory.10

Note that the fact that a response is ‘intuited’ rather than ‘substantive’ does not entail that it must be a range property response. It would be possible to defend the view that some particular non-range-property is the basis of equality, and that the fact that this is so cannot be defended except through direct intuition. There are two reasons I focus on the range property claim. First, it presents an important aspect of the intuited response more starkly, and therefore more clearly. Since no reason for the threshold needs to be offered, no reason not to accept minor alterations need be offered. And this is so, even if it is natural to ask why a slightly higher, or lower, level is not selected. Second, many properties can be presented as range properties. For example, while we do sometimes describe people as acting either rationally or irrationally, we also describe people as acting more and less rationally; we might understand that the first of these usages as depending upon particular models of, or thresholds on, the second.

Note also that the distinction I have drawn between ‘intuited’ and ‘substantive’ responses is not hard and fast. A defence of equality could be shallowly substantive. It could offer an explanation of a threshold for equality, but the reasons that back up this explanation might themselves run out quickly. For example, it might be argued that we shouldn’t treat individuals merely as means to other ends, and that therefore our ethical principles should be acceptable to anyone who can use reasons, no matter how well they can use reasons. To this position it might be asked, ‘if reason-responsiveness carries such value, why not give greater priority to those who respond to reasons more effectively?’ If it is now replied that the wrongness of treating agents merely as means is a basic principle which cannot be explained any further, then this position will count as a substantive account of basic equality, but will still be a case in which reasons quickly run out. In this kind of case, the arguments I present below may still be applicable, since we can still ask why reasons run out at the point they are claimed to do so.

The intuited range property response to the problem of identifying a basis for equality can apply whichever of the two senses of ‘significant’ and ‘relevant’ described in the previous section is in operation. If significance is post-normative, then the standard of ‘significance’ varies, by definition and of necessity, between theories. Precisely what a theory is, is a specification of what is relevant, and where it is relevant; to be relevant is nothing more than to be referred to by a principle. For the intuited response, now, the principle of basic equality is fundamental, and once it is revealed we can do little to defend it except delineate it more carefully. Alternatively, if significance is pre-normative, then a failure to see that a given feature warrants basic equality involves a failure to understand how the normative world fits together. There is little we could do to defend the significance of the feature in virtue of which we count equally, except to describe it more carefully. Whichever of the two conceptions of ‘significance’ is in play, explanations run out in equality. Thus, we can leave aside this distinction here.

To summarise: Analogously to the intuited response, some things just are funny, and there is no more that can be said or done by way of explanation, except repetition or more careful illustration. Justifications come to an end somewhere. On the present view, moral equality is basic, and in arguing with someone who denies it, we quickly run out of reasons, but since this principle is so fundamental, we should be more troubled by the person who denies it than by the fact that we have run out of reasons.

When is a Further Explanation Required?

I will spend the rest of this essay discussing that response. Supposing that there are cases in which explanations do come to an end, is this one of them? In an aside, Robert Nozick suggests the opposite view:

It would appear that a person’s characteristics, by virtue of which others are constrained in their treatment of him, must themselves be valuable characteristics. How else are we to understand why something so valuable emerges from them? (Nozick 1974, p. 48).

Although Nozick expressly mentions only the characteristics by virtue of which others’ treatment is constrained, we can think of this claim as applying to basic status in general. The thought is that some independent explanation must be offered in order for us to understand how value works so as to produce moral status. Otherwise status seems arbitrary. The key idea denied by the intuited range property response, then, is this:

Further explanation: There must be an explanation of the normative significance of the property in virtue of which an individual counts, other than the fact that it is the property in virtue of which an individual counts.

I shall proceed as follows. In this section I outline and reject three objections to the further explanation claim. In the next section I outline and reject at greater length a more forceful objection to it.

One objection to the further explanation claim is this. If Nozick is right to think that the characteristics in virtue of which individuals count as equals must themselves be valuable, one is lead to wonder whether characteristics must be valuable all the way down. That is to say, the characteristics in virtue of which the characteristics in virtue of which an individual counts must themselves be valuable. Put in terms of explanations, the implication is that there must be an explanation why the property in virtue of which the property in virtue of which an individual counts is itself significant.11 This leads to the absurd situation in which explanations regress infinitely. If it seems problematic that explanations spring from fundamental, foundational starting points, or from coherent loops of some specified sort, then it seems doubly problematic that they spring from infinity, with one end of the chain to be grasped by us, but its source unknowable.

However, we do not need the general postulate that explanations go on forever in order to support the further explanation claim. We need only argue that explanations do not come to an end here, in basic equality. It is sufficient to support the claim merely to show that there must be a further explanation of the significance of the property in virtue of which an individual counts. The claim says nothing about where else explanations may be required. It is neutral on that question. It is a claim only about how we account for individuals’ status, not about how we account for things in general.

Where explanations come to an end, they take on a seemingly circular aspect. In the intuited range property response, the question, ‘what is the significant feature which makes an individual count?’ is answered, ‘possession of cognitive capacities beyond degree X.’ And to the question, ‘why is possession of cognitive capacities beyond degree X so significant?’, no more can be said, ultimately, than, ‘because it is what makes an individual count.’ My claim will not be that explanations never follow the pattern just described; it will merely be that this particular instance of the pattern is unsatisfying.

In the light of this, a second way to understand the intuited range property response is to take it that it denies the further explanation claim by asserting that it is enough to justify ethical ideas to restate unreflectively our bare practice. The final reason is ‘this is what we do.’ This position has some attraction. When we are unable to explain a claim further, we often do resort to appeals to our practice. For example, we just do define bachelors as unmarried men. Might such appeals apply to the normative sphere, and, in particular, to the sphere of basic equality?

The problems with this position are manifold. It is not clear that our practice does involve the same, consistent notion of equality: the issues surrounding the boundaries of moral status are some of the most controversial, both in philosophy and the public domain.12 Moreover, even if we do in fact share a consistent practice of equality, this position makes it difficult to say what is wrong with a departure from the practice, since the departure may itself be deemed a new, self-justifying, practice. In general, it does not seem satisfactory to say ‘the practice of treating as equals is self-justifying because practices in general are self-justifying.’ We would want to say that the content of the practice is self-justifying. Some practices do not justify themselves. If we allow that reasons need to be offered for our practices, then we should not allow the further explanation claim to be denied on the ground that practices self-justify. The intuited range property response thus understood is in violation of our normal justification method.

Yet stronger, one could argue that this method does not meet its own standards. It asks that we appeal to what we do, but following the procedure of asking what we do is not, generally, in asking for justifications, what we do. We do in fact appeal to reasons beyond bare practice. The position would need to explain why ‘what we do’ is significant, for a further reason; it would need to explain why one standard is applied to the practical level of analysis, and a different standard to the justificatory level. It is difficult to see what makes the levels relevantly different.

Where there is an absence of further explanation, intuition is very strong. Nonetheless, our intuitions can’t all be taken at face value; they need to face some scrutiny. This gives rise to a third way in which the further explanation claim might be denied. This begins with the claim that even if we disagree about the particular threshold above which an individual counts as a member of the community of equals, we agree that there is such a threshold. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, one may hold the view that there is an ‘egalitarian plateau,’ a view of basic equality held by a range of views that differ substantially in other respects. It may then be argued that, since we all accept some kind of equality, equality is a fundamental value, and so it must be possible for us to settle on some particular threshold above which individuals count equally. This threshold itself does not need explanation beyond its derivation from the more basic claim that each accepts some version of basic equality.

However, that each accepts some kind of equality does not entail that all accept the same kind of equality, even after working through a process of trying to find a settlement of differences. It remains open, on this position, that our differences may be settled by agreeing on a rejection of equality. If we disagree in some respects and agree in others, we cannot, ex ante, assert which respects would, ex post, be agreed upon. The defender of the intuited view needs to give an account of why we do finish with a consensus about a threshold.

Incorrigible Equality

Here is a better way of understanding the intuited response. Unlike the view that practices are self-justifying, we accept that the value of equality is accessible only through reflection upon our practices, in a way that tries to make them coherent. But we add to this the claim that the process of thinking through our practices will in fact lead to the selection of some range property as the basis of moral status. This is because great weight should be put on the intuition that individuals (roughly construed as persons) are fundamentally of equal value. That intuition is so forceful that it is hardly necessary to call it to account. It has, largely, a vetoing force: principles which contradict it should thereby be rejected.

There may be intuitions which have this kind of vetoing power in our ethical thinking. For example, if we discover that a theory demands that (absent further considerations) some be tortured for the trivial gain of others, we will have found a forceful reason to reject that theory. Alternatively, the idea might be necessary to the way we normally live and conceive of ourselves: if a theory has the outcome that none of us is ever morally responsible, then to accept it may involve such a revolutionary change in one’s self-understanding, that it would be better to reject it. That is, basic equality is not just part of our practice, but it is inconceivable that it is not part of our practice.

Does the intuition about basic equality have this kind of power? It seems unlike the other intuitions which might have this power, in two ways. The remainder of this section is devoted to elaborating these two differences.

First, the denial of such intuitions is typically obviously preposterous. This does seem to be the case with the intuition that torture in exchange for trivial gain is impermissible. Some discussions of egalitarianism offer a similarly stark portrayal of a world without basic equality. Examples include Dworkin (1983), Pojman (1992) and Waldron (2002). They invoke fascist and racist ideologies, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s emphasis on the ‘abysmal disparity in order of rank and abysm of rank between man and man’ (Nietzsche 1990, para. 62), along with their troubling ethical implications. These positions involve the combination of an intrinsic value account of moral status, with a denial that individuals have the same intrinsic value.

However, I mentioned at the start of this essay the possibility of an interests-based account of moral status. This does not count individuals as equals; it counts interests as equals. On its present interpretation, the intuited range property response must say that these views are not just implausible, but obviously implausible. It is far from obvious that an interests-based account of status is so obviously implausible that it must be rejected out of hand. It may be possible to defend the view that individuals have roughly the same interests. Alternatively, it may be possible to defend an account of interests which gives the result that individuals’ interests ought to be counted in a way that roughly corresponds with what we would call treating individuals as equals. If successful, such accounts would sate our strong anti-discriminatory intuitions, without irreducibly supposing the existence of individuals of equal status.

In doubting those ‘rough equality of interests’ positions, some consider it to be basic that if our ethical thought is about anything at all, it is about persons. On such a view, the value of the overall interests of a person cannot be the conflation of the value of all the interests of the person at particular points in time. The value of the interests of a person irreducibly applies to the person, taken as one atomic being. In the jargon introduced at the beginning of this paper, the status of individuals arises through their intrinsic value; status is not merely interest-based. For the purposes of the argument I am making here, it is sufficient only to show that this is not obviously correct. There is a growing set of arguments making just this point. I shall outline one here.

First, suppose we accept what Derek Parfit calls a reductionist account of personhood (Parfit 1986). That is, a body counts as the same, persisting person just in virtue of some relational property between each point in time. For example, I am the same person I was 5 years ago because there is a psychological continuity between my consciousness 5 years ago, and my consciousness now. If we accept this account of personhood, then in order to believe that ethics must be about (equally important) persons, we must think that there is something valuable about this relational property, in virtue of which persons exist. That is, whatever unites time-slices into a whole being must itself be valuable. Against this, consider the following case, due to John Broome (1991, pp. 233–237).

Imagine that all the amounts of good for some individual are the same at each time. But also suppose that there is a break in personhood: some condition that is necessary for the continuation of the existence of one single person fails to hold. Perhaps the person is swept out of existence, and replaced with a perfect replica, possessing the same memories and plans. Now, the view that there is a good for the person that is independent of the good of each stage in time seems problematic: it implies that had this break in personhood not occurred, we should entirely reconceive this individual’s good. We are lead to wonder how this good emerges, given the premise that the good of each stage is exactly the same. Its emergence seems mysterious. To repeat, I do not claim that this case is decisive, but I do claim that it undermines one way of arguing that the interest-based account of moral status is obviously implausible.13

Even if this challenge can be answered, there is a second reason to think that it is a peculiar claim that it is a fundamental intuition that a range property is the basis of equality. This is that other kinds of threshold require a further explanation for their significance, whereas the intuited response denies that a further explanation is necessary (McMahan 2002, p. 250). We use range properties in many different circumstances. For example, competence is a range property. Whether an individual is competent to perform some task is a range on the scalar property measuring the individual’s overall ability to perform it. One might be more or less competent to some task, but once one is competent to do it, one can’t be more competent; any more capabilities are surplus to requirements, so far as competence is concerned.14 The threshold in competence is derived from the nature of the task on which it is predicated. Competence is necessary for the achievement of a given goal, from which the threshold follows. More straightforwardly, a cup has a threshold, beyond which it will overflow. The reason the cup overflows at the point it does follows from the capacity of the cup. However, basic worth, understood as a purely intuited threshold, is not instrumental in either of these ways. The intuited range property response, on the present understanding, specifically denies that there is anything to be said in explanation of the level of the threshold. This is peculiar. Normally, when there is a threshold, we can explain its level.15

This point can be brought out further by considering one argument against the claim that ‘being human’ is the characteristic in virtue of which an individual counts as one of the group of equals.16 There is some intuitive attraction to the following idea: humanness is what qualifies an individual for basic moral status, and there is nothing more that can explain this; the importance of humanness is basic and sui generis. This position loses its attraction when it is established that ‘being human’ is a range property. Evolution occurs gradually, providing us with a continuum of cases up to homo sapiens. Why exclude the individuals which have powerful cognitive capacities, but narrowly fail to be human? Any specification of a line between human and non-human begs an instrumental justification: we naturally ask what purpose there is for the concept, and in the light of this purpose, whether the threshold might be located elsewhere. As soon as humanness is understood, as it is here, as a range property, it becomes far less satisfying as an intuited basis for equality. This is because, as urged in the previous paragraph, wherever we establish a threshold, we look for a justification for its location. Perhaps humanness is a relevant characteristic, but if it is, we need an explanation. It is not self-evidently significant.

I have argued that an intuited range property as the basis for equality would be peculiar: unlike other intuited ethical positions, its denial is not obviously preposterous. And unlike other range properties, its threshold is not instrumental. It might be responded that this is no threat to the position: it is no surprise that this tenet, which is fundamental to our ethics, is peculiar. The fundamental is often peculiar. This tenet is the foundation on which other attitudes are based, and so cannot be called into question in the way that other attitudes can. This response is reminiscent of foundationalism about religious beliefs (Plantinga 1981). Just as it may be argued that beliefs about God are basic, so it may be argued that beliefs about human equality are basic.

A general challenge to these foundationalisms is to explain why the given belief is basic, and not other beliefs. What are the criteria for basicness? It may be suggested that it is sufficient for a belief to be basic that it is fundamental to our overall system of beliefs. However, this is an inadequate response, at least in the case of the claim that individuals matter equally. This is because it begs the question against the two peculiarities of the intuited range property response discussed above. Those peculiarities showed that the intuited response is not fundamental to our overall system of beliefs; indeed, they show that it involves a challenge to them. It demands that we abandon the idea that the rejection of unchallengeable intuitions is always preposterous, and the idea that the level of any threshold can be justified. In the absence of any other criteria for basicness, I leave aside this response.

I shall now briefly run through the four positions I have discussed in this and the previous section. To reject the further explanation claim, we do not need to assert, or deny, that reasons go on forever. If, alternatively, we say basic equality requires no explanation because, as one of our practices, it is self-justifying, then we open ourselves up to saying that seemingly unjustified practices are self-justifying. The argument that some particular threshold is basic, because all accept that there must be a threshold somewhere, does not explain why the result will not be reached that equality will be rejected. Finally, the argument that basic equality is an iron-cast intuition could not explain why this intuition lacks features of other such intuitions: its denial is not obviously preposterous, and its threshold is not instrumental.

The general tension is this. Insofar as the intuited range property response claims that the basic equality intuition is subject to little or no scrutiny, it requires an abandonment of the way we normally justify. And insofar as the intuited range property response permits scrutiny of the basic equality intuition, it ceases to become an intuited response, requiring a further explanation of the location of the threshold. Given the argument of this and the previous section, I conclude that the further explanation claim remains intact, that the intuited range property response is unsuccessful, and that basic equality demands a substantive defence.

Concluding Remark

It may seem I have achieved little in this paper: all I have done (if successful) is to have shown that something needs defending. Isn’t everything open to questioning, and thereby defence, anyhow? I have merely hinted, and not attempted to show, that a defence would be difficult.

Against this, some accept the central claim I have argued for—that a further explanation of equality is, in the final analysis, necessary—but would emphasise that we are not, here and now, dealing with the final analysis. One version of this position holds that it is not part of the proper vocation of political theory, or political philosophy, to offer a basis for equality; this is the job of metaphysics, or of some more theoretical and less practical branch of philosophy. Practical philosophers have enough to do. They can work with rough-and-ready conceptions of persons that have been derived from a political consensus. Alternatively, a less concessive version of this position holds that it is no one’s proper vocation to inquire into these questions: there are great risks to our reasonably decent, if perhaps imperfect, ways of relating to one another, if we begin prodding at their foundations. Human equality is a shibboleth. And the idea of human inequality is, if it is in the wrong hands, a dangerous weapon.

The subject of my argument has been a thesis that our culture represents both as an expression of a deep truth, and as platitudinous; acceptance of the thesis is sometimes insisted upon as a starting premise for participation in decent conversation. It is of consequence that such a thesis can’t be asserted into place, and is subject to important challenges. If, furthermore, as I believe but have not argued here, there are diverse and divergent possible substantive defences of the thesis, then an understanding of how to argue for it becomes crucially important. We would do better to understand how to defend it, than to assert it as a matter of faith. If a further explanation cannot be offered, we would do well to understand how we can give an account of a decent normative system that has neither basic equality, nor the dramatic practical implications of its abandonment that some fear.


A brief note about the way the problem is phrased: it is framed to apply to ‘individuals.’ The intention with the use of this term is to leave open different possibilities for filling in what, finally, counts as a condition for inclusion in the group of equals. It might be objected that the problem would more helpfully be reworded so that it applies to ‘humans’ or to ‘persons’ instead of ‘individuals’. However, to do this would be to prejudge, unnecessarily, the scope of the group of moral equals. If that group consists in the group ‘persons’, then this needs to be defended (so I will claim).


A paradigm of the interest-based account of status is the tentative utilitarian argument put forward in Parfit (1986). I do not mean to suggest in this paragraph that interpersonal comparisons of interest-satisfaction are unproblematic; I mean only to say that insofar as an interest-based account of status can get around those problems, it will not count individuals as equals. Some conceptions of interests themselves involve an irreducible reference to a person as a singular entity persisting over time. I leave this aside here, noting that this is a way in which an apparently interests-based account of status can turn out to be dependent upon an intrinsic-value account.


Spelled out fully, the argument in this paragraph is:

1. (Assume for rejection.) It is a sufficient condition of a theory treating an entity as a member of the community of equals that it gives the same weight to each interest of that entity to each interest of each other entity

2. Interest-based theories give the same weight to each interest of each person

3. Therefore (from 1, 2), interest-based theories count persons as members of the community of equals

4. Interest-based theories give the same weight to each interest of each set of persons

5. Therefore (from 1, 4), interest-based theories count each set of persons as a member of the community of equals

6. No two members of the community of equals have different status.

7. Therefore (from 3,5,6), interest-based theories count each person as having the same status as (or as not having different status to) each set of persons

8. This (7) is absurd (or, at best, a trivial sense of ‘status’). Therefore, we should reject (1).


An intrinsic value view might also entail that the scrutiny under which a being can be held responsible becomes more intense as that being possesses the property to a greater degree. Intrinsic value can be cashed out in a number of different ways. It may involve there being certain things no one can do to another, without their consent. But it may also be softer: it may require priority to be given to the individual who is worse off. It may involve the necessity of the rules being justifiable to each. It may even involve a utilitarian principle, justified as the outcome of treating individuals as equals (as in Harsanyi 1975). Each of these views, unlike the interest-based account, involves irreducibly assigning normative status to individuals: on each of these views, unlike the interests-based account, there is a non-trivial sense in which individuals count as equals, that is to say, a sense of equality in which it is also not the case that two count for the same as one.


It is unclear how to fit the practice of positive discrimination into this schema. Williams might say that race can be relevant to a hiring decision, prior to normative considerations, if one takes the hiring decision not in isolation, but as part of a wider social context that includes historical and institutional injustices.


Waldron usefully defines a range property in this way: ‘R is a range property with respect to S if R is binary and S is a scalar property, such that R applies to individual items in virtue of their being within a certain range on the scale connoted by S’ (Waldron 2008, p. 33). This definition gets clear that in saying that some property is a range property, we must also be able to offer the scalar property with respect to which we are claiming it is a range property.


For simplicity, I will continue to discuss scalar properties which have one dimension, with a single threshold. But it is possible to have a multi-dimensional range property, with several thresholds, the passing of any one of which would qualify an individual as possessing the property.


Waldron (2002) finds in Locke an argument that only a theological viewpoint could give an account of basic equality.


We might attribute this position to McMahan (1996). However, in other work, McMahan seems alive to the problems of specifying a threshold, and stops short of defending one (McMahan 2002, p. 253). Also, Allen Buchanan asserts, axiomatically, that the ‘concept of human rights is a threshold concept, not a scalar one’ (Buchanan 2009, p. 357).


Further evidence for this interpretation: Rawls allows that the members of the original position may be trustees or representatives of those to whom justice applies. This severs a possible way in which the basis for equality, and the contractarian apparatus, could be tied together. This is that the contractors must actually be capable of contracting.


Put yet another way: in order to understand why something valuable emerges, it is always necessary to identify some independent value among the things from which it emerges.


This point should arouse our suspicion, but I do not claim it is decisive. It may be objected (1) we have a consistent notion of equality which has a fuzzy or vague border, and that the controversy is explained by this; (2) the existence of controversy does not prove the existence of different practices—there may be agreement on normative ideas beneath apparently intractable debate (see, e.g., Dworkin 1993).


Stephen Darwall (2006) argues that the making of demands of one another—and, derivatively, we might add, our basic equality—is part of the way we understand the world. We do in fact make claims upon one another; in doing so, we make presumptions about the capacity of those upon whom we make these claims to respond to reasons; and we can’t live as we do and conceive of ourselves as we do unless we make such claims. One can doubt that this argument can take us all the way a justification of basic equality. This is because it supposes that the capacity to respond to reasons is a binary property, and we are left wanting an account of where upon a continuous scale of the capacity to respond to reasons the relevant threshold is placed. One could imagine a variety of possible thresholds, or systems of multiple thresholds, that would be consistent with conceiving ourselves roughly as we do.


We sometimes say that someone is ‘extremely competent’ to some task. If competence is a range property, then either ‘extreme competence’ is a play on words; or there is a separate concept of competence at work in that phrase; or when that phrase is used, there is a task involved which has a very high threshold of competence, before an individual can be said to be competent to perform it.


This particular objection concerns the way we understand thresholds, and so does not apply to an intuited non-range property response. However, I would urge that many purported bases for equality turn out to be range properties. For example, the property of ‘being human’ can, as outlined in the following paragraph, be understood as a range property.


For further discussion of the following position, see DeGrazia (1996, pp. 57–61).



I would like to thank audiences at Exeter, Princeton, and Toronto. For written comments, I am very grateful to John Broome, Rachel Bryant, Ian Carter, Jessica Flanigan, Keith Hyams, and the anonymous reviewer for this journal. For financial support, I thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and for providing a space in which to write this article, I would like to express my gratitude to the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto.

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