Why We (Almost Certainly) are Not Moral Equals


Faith in the universal moral equality of people enjoys close to unanimous consensus in present moral and political philosophy. Yet its philosophical justification remains precarious. The search for the basis of equality encounters insurmountable difficulties. Nothing short of a miracle seems required to stabilize universal equality in moral status amidst a vast space of distinctions sprawling between people. The difficulties of stabilizing equality against differentiation are not specific to any particular choice regarding the basis of equality. To show this, I will provide a general diagnosis of the difficulty together with its application to the arguably best attempt at a solution, namely to ground moral equality in a form of subjectivity. In his recent book Equality for Nonegalitarians, George Sher advances the view that “we are moral equals because we are equally centers of consciousness. …The fact that we are equals in this respect—that each is a world unto himself—…explains why each person’s interests are of equal moral importance”. Yet the worlds we are unto ourselves can no more withstand the force of differentiation than previous candidates suggested in the literature, and the reasons why run deeper than even some critics have recognized. The prospects for vindicating universal moral equality remain bleak.

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  1. 1.

    Many philosophers make this observation. Here are a few. “One of the rare points of agreement among moral and political philosophers is that, despite their innumerable physical and mental differences, all persons have equal moral standing (are moral equals, have the same natural rights, are owed equal concern and respect, etc.).” (Sher 2015: 74) “The principle that all humans are equal is now part of the prevailing political and ethical orthodoxy.” (Singer 2011: 16) “The idea that each person matters equally is at the heart of all plausible political theories.” (Kymlicka 2002: 4) And earlier: “Some theories … deny that each person matters equally. But such theories do not merit serious consideration.” (Kymlicka 1989: 40) “An equal consideration principle … would be accepted by almost everyone (with the exception perhaps of a few extreme racists).” (Miller 2007: 28) “We may therefore say that justice as fairness rests 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.” (Dworkin 1997: 182)

  2. 2.

    Kekes (2006) provides useful references to more reputable skeptics, as well as defenders of egalitarianism.

  3. 3.

    “Certainly false” is Carter’s verdict. (Carter 2011: 541)

  4. 4.

    As will become increasingly evident subsequently, the probabilistic element in the title of this essay is entirely deliberate. In fact, my overall argument has a decidedly probabilistic character throughout. In my view, the moral inequality of people does not reflect any necessary divisions in human nature or some cosmic rationale, as was customarily supposed in more blatantly anti-egalitarian schemes. There is no deeper rationale preventing people turning out moral equals as a matter of fact. It is just exceedingly unlikely, as I shall argue, and the low probability of universal equality can be ascertained once the totality of factors is fully brought to light needed to conspire to secure such an outcome.

  5. 5.

    In his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, Arneson writes: “Egalitarian doctrines tend to rest on the background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status." (Arneson 2013: beginning)

  6. 6.

    The preceding sentences in Williams’ article states this explicitly: “The idea of equality is used in political discussion both in statements of fact—that men are equal—and in statements of political principle or aims—that men should be equal, as at present they are not. The two can be, and often are, combined: the aim is then described as that of securing a state of affairs …” (Williams 1997: 91)

  7. 7.

    And lest someone accuses Williams or me of committing some fallacy or other, the view under discussion maintains the justificatory relationship between status-equality and egalitarian principle to be contributory, rather than one of straightforward entailment or something comparatively strong. Status-equality would presumably lend support to egalitarian principles only with the assistance of other normative elements.

  8. 8.

    Cf. Hare (1981: ch. 3); Arneson (2015: 37–39); Rozeboom (2017). This includes Carter’s idea of opacity respect. (Carter 2011) Carter writes: “in order to respect persons we need to treat them as ‘opaque’, paying attention only to their outward features as agents.” (Carter 2011: 539) Whether respect does require opacity is unclear; it seems to conflict with the common assertion that respect requires not to exclusively fixate on outward features of persons but rather a genuine effort at attaining a more intimate understanding of them, as in Williams injunction that “each man is owed an effort of identification: that he should not be regarded as the surface to which a certain label can be applied, but one should try to see the world … from his point of view” and “one should respect and try to understand another man’s consciousness of his own activities.” (Williams 1997: 95) And truly appreciating where people are coming from is impossible in the absence of a clear sense of their characters, capacities, concerns, etc., precisely what Carter wishes to protect from judgment. Yet even if respect did require opacity, this would hardly settle the question about equality in moral status, but rather demand an agnostic attitude towards it. We presumably cannot, nay even may not, make such a determination. And a fortiori the reason why opacity is required cannot reside in any careful diagnosis of equality in moral status, as such a diagnosis would clearly violate “evaluative abstinence,” but must come from somewhere else. Thus, I share Arneson (2015) and Sher (2015) impression that Carter is sidestepping rather than resolving the problems facing the attempt to find a basis for equality.

  9. 9.

    But not completely. First, as I explicitly stated, the arguable collapse of one basis for egalitarian demands does not entail the unavailability of other bases. Second, the question of whether we should stop or continue demanding equality is a paradigmatically practical one, concerning the propriety of demanding equality, which inevitably depends on a plurality of factors beyond status-equality. In highly discriminatory societies, demanding greater equality might be the only effective way to rectify egregious injustices, and this could be so even if status-parity turned out untenable.

  10. 10.

    In his Practical Ethics, Singer adds: “The plain fact is that humans differ, and the differences apply to so many characteristics that the search for a factual basis on which to erect the principle of equality seems hopeless.” (Singer 2011: 17) And in his response to Arneson’s critical discussion, he writes “I am … delighted that Arneson’s search for a resolution of ‘the Singer Problem’ fails to achieve its goal.” (Singer 1999: 295) As Singer holds the ethically orthodox principle of human equality to be normative, his affirmation of it (or of animal equality) and his rejection of its factual basis are consistent.

  11. 11.

    Could Singer retort that the allegedly “factual” claim itself is normative in character, that there is nothing in the area of equality that is not normative all the way down? In a posthumously published and unfinished article, Cohen has suggested that “we can distinguish between the view that you regard [other people] as equal to you because that is how you wish to treat them, where the goal is primary, and the standard view that you treat them as equals because you regard them as equals, which is the view that prompts the wild-goose chase for defining characteristics.” Accordingly, Cohen explains, “if my wife and I treat each other as equals, that is not because of some features common to us that we perceive, but rather it is because of the nature of the relationship that we seek, and value.” (Cohen 2013: 194) Relatedly, proposing a pragmatic foundation for egalitarian assumptions, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “that the dogma of equality applied … to individuals only within the limits of ordinary dealings in the common run of affairs. You cannot argue with your neighbor, except on the admission for the moment that he is as wise as you, although you may by no means believe it. … [And] you cannot deal with him … except on the footing of equal treatment, and the same rules for both.” (Holmes 2009: 41–42) For reasons of space I cannot adequately discuss the intriguing possibilities raised by Cohen and Holmes suggestions. Much would hinge on the details of the goal-based alternative. Ultimately, a normative or pragmatic approach would seem rather orthogonal to the present discussion. Rather than coming to the aid of the proposition that people are moral equals, it would seem to lead us in a different direction entirely. I briefly comment on a fictionalist rendition in the next section.

  12. 12.

    Moreover, as Sher convincingly argues, Singer too must accept some factual basis for equality: “Singer's suggestion threatens to prove too much. If the empirical differences between persons and cows do not prevent cows from having the same moral status as persons, then the empirical differences between persons and cows on the one hand and trees and rocks on the other will not prevent trees and rocks from having the same moral status either. Singer, recognizing the threat, attempted to defuse it by pointing out that humans and cows are sentient, and thus have an interest in avoiding suffering, while trees and rocks are not and do not. However, this response, though eminently sensible, completely guts Singer's proposal. If sentience, an empirical property, can be relevant to a being's moral standing, there is no reason why other empirical properties may not be relevant too.” (Sher 2014: 75)

  13. 13.

    Paraphrasing from Irving Kristol’s famous (Kristol 1972) polemic. It did not help placating the conservative suspicion that egalitarianism is driven by envy that Ronald Dworkin explicitly introduced “the envy test” into his conception of The Sovereign Virtue (Dworkin 2000), prompting conservatives to remark on “how extraordinary it is to elevate envy into the criterion of justice.” (Kekes 2001: 106) Yet to be fair, many progressive commentators balked at basing egalitarian concerns on envy, including Rawls, who dedicated an entire section on the “Problem of Envy,” in which he declared: “A rational individual is not subject to envy” (1999: 464). And Stanley Benn wrote: “Objections to a practice based purely on envy … would not be admissible, because avoiding the pangs of envy would not be an interest of a rational, prudent man.” (Benn 1997: 117)

  14. 14.

    Williams cautions against being “gratuitously egalitarian, aiming at equal treatment for reasons, for instance, of simplicity or tidiness.” (Williams1997: 92)

  15. 15.

    Aristotle is famously credited with the formal principle that equals must be treated equally, and unequals must be treated unequally, extrapolating from his statement in the Nichomachean Ethics (1131a) that “complaints arise either when equals receive unequal shares in an allocation, or unequals receive equal shares.” Aristotle 2004: 86

  16. 16.

    Louis Pojman dryly remarks: “inegalitarians simply claim that there is a good reason for unequal treatment of human beings. They are of unequal worth.” (Pojman 1997a: 283)

  17. 17.

    Setting aside the unpromising nature of the particular idea that IQ scores ground moral status. On this matter, Kant seemed to have gotten it exactly right in the famous opening remarks of his Groundwork (Ak 4: 393): “Understanding, wit, the power of judgment, and like talents of the mind, … are without doubt in some respects good and to be wished for; but they can also become extremely evil and harmful, if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose peculiar constitution is therefore called character, is not good.” (Kant 2002: 9) Ted Bundy’s elevated IQ score hardly translated into his elevated moral status or dignity, but, if anything, only facilitated the corruption of his dignity.

  18. 18.

    A more skeptical position on the separation of moral rights and moral equality is presented in Pojman (1992).

  19. 19.

    Jefferson’s letter is to Henry Gregoire from February 1809.

  20. 20.

    Regan (2004) is the classic case for animal rights.

  21. 21.

    Steinhoff makes a very similar point in Steinhoff (Steinhoff 2015a: 155–158), aptly criticizing many theorists of rights who focus on only one or a limited set of principles or rationales grounding rights or moral status at the exclusion of other candidate sets of rights or moral status, paying insufficient attention to the possibility that whatever equalization in rights or moral status is accomplished through principles ABC might be compromised through principles DEF.

  22. 22.

    I thus disagree with Arneson’s characterization of “the basic equality idea” when he writes: “Put vaguely the idea … is that each person just in virtue of qualifying for personhood status possesses certain substantial moral rights.” (Arneson 2015: 31) Again, we should separate the non-comparative (and true) claim that persons possess certain rights simply in virtue of their personhood from the comparative (and false) claim that all persons are moral equals. That these issues can be separated is implicitly or explicitly denied by many, for instance by Jeremy Waldron who writes “the general assumption … that the idea of rights involves a commitment to equality and that it is profoundly antithetical to racist and sexist conceptions of human value is now beyond dispute.” (Waldron 2007: 752) Yet the unquestioned entanglement of rights with equality and equality with the rejection of racism and sexism does not aid moral analysis. If rights and equality differ structurally in their comparative presuppositions, then such an entanglement at least requires an argument. (Steinhoff 2015a: 153–154)

  23. 23.

    It merely entails a universal claim. Yet there is a second respect in which the popular language of “equal rights” is infelicitous. For instance, Allen Buchanan writes: “To ascribe a set of rights to all persons, regardless of their membership in this or that group … is in itself a recognition of equal status.” (Buchanan 2010: 685) But this statement characteristically blurs the distinction between “there are some rights everyone possesses” and “everyone possesses the same rights.” The proposition that certain rights are held by anyone (or ascribed to everyone) is fully compatible with the proposition that not everyone has equal (=exactly the same) rights, as some rights may be held by anyone while others may not. My example of the dog illustrates the point. For another one, Steinhoff imagines an unjust attacker set to kill his innocent victim. The victim has the right to kill the attacker (in self-defense), but the attacker does not have the right to kill the victim. (Steinhoff 2015a: 152) Moreover, as Steinhoff points out, even the proposition that everyone has exactly the same rights could fall short of securing any robust egalitarianism. Suppose the one and only right held by everyone is to enslave the vanquished (or against enslavement without a fight). The resulting slaveholding society would hardly satisfy egalitarian sentiments. As Steinhoff correctly notes, in addition to the strict universality of any right held by anyone, the rights would need to have certain contents. (Steinhoff 2015a: 154)

  24. 24.

    Harry Frankfurt stresses the same point: “I categorically reject the presumption that egalitarianism … is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance. This emphatically does not mean that I am inclined generally to endorse or to be indifferent to prevailing inequalities, or that I oppose efforts to eliminate or to ameliorate them. In fact, I support many such efforts. What leads me to support them … is a more contingent and pragmatically grounded belief that in many circumstances greater equality … would facilitate the pursuit of other socially or politically desirable results.” (Frankfurt 2015: 65–66)

  25. 25.

    Cf. Piketty (2014).

  26. 26.

    Cf. Piketty (2014).

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    Both statements are in the opening of the report.

  29. 29.

    Cf. Acemoglu and Robinson (2013).

  30. 30.

    Cf. Fukuyama (2014).

  31. 31.

    In the essay, I ignore another source of possible variation in moral status, the variation across different temporal stages of a person’s life, proceeding with the simpler model of moral status being temporally invariant. This model, though commonly presupposed, is vulnerable to a similar argument as the one presented against status-parity. (Cf. Wittwer 2015)

  32. 32.

    For instance, Thomas Christiano writes: “Basic moral equality holds among persons even when they have done things that make morally relevant distinctions between them. When one person voluntarily acts wrongly, he may come to deserve harsh treatment. That this person deserves harsh treatment and others do not does not imply that he has a lesser basic moral status. … So differential deserts, benefits, and obligations can be compatible with basic equality.” (Christiano 2015: 54–55) Fair enough. But then the egalitarian ought avoid getting distracted by orthogonal differences and cut right to the chase and elucidate the relevant respect in which people are presumably moral equals and why. The discussion could then proceed and focus on this, the relevant, egalitarian claim.

  33. 33.

    Cf. Steinhoff (2015a).

  34. 34.

    Consequentialist may chose to join in the talk of moral status and standing, as they have occasionally done with talk about rights, as a façon de parler, tapping into a fashionable idiom to advance an agenda that really has no business with rights or standing. If moral standing just reduces to enjoying moral interests, all attention would correspondingly shift to the assessment of the differential weight of interests, rendering the moral comparison of persons an afterthought at best. While one could still maintain that each person’s interests count equally, the reasons for this would have nothing to do with persons per se or their standing, but just reside in the principle that if interests are all that counts, and if there is no relevant difference between two interests a and b, it is simply arbitrary to prioritize one over the other. Focusing entirely on interests, Singer’s requirement that we “give equal weight in our moral deliberation to the like interests of all those affected by our actions” (Singer 2011: 20) would seem reasonable, until, that is, persons, their projects, relationships and commitments remerge anew. Speaking again of noses, if two noses have the same mass then they have the same “weight,” regardless of what person they happen to be attached to. Their “equality” is entirely extrinsic to the personhood of their hosts, and I believe this is roughly how Singer would think about interests. In sum, as Arneson notes: “Utilitarians can dispense with a theory of human equality.” (Arneson 1999: 117)

  35. 35.

    Cf. Anderson (1999: 312 in reference to Young).

  36. 36.

    Some commentators have read Thomas Hobbes to hold such a view, on the basis of his statement that “the value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price—that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power—and therefore is not absolute but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.” (Hobbes 1994: 51, Ch. 10)

  37. 37.

    Benn continues: “every man is entitled to be taken on his own merits; there is no general disqualifying condition.” (Benn 1997: 116) “An egalitarian would deny that any property could confer an automatic general priority of claim.” (Benn 1997: 117)

  38. 38.

    Defensive egalitarians could object to discrimination motivated by supremacist assumptions as ill founded, showing that nothing backs up the nobility’s claim to superior entitlements. But could they also object to un-motivated and randomly generated forms of discrimination? Suppose the government assigns arbitrary legal roles and distinctions by the sheer roll of the dice, bestowing legal privileges to “Masters” while denying it to “Servants,” carefully adding the proviso: “The resulting discrimination reflects no judgment whatsoever of unequal worth. It is entirely coincidental.” This measure would surely offend egalitarians, yet it remains unclear on what basis defensive status-egalitarians could object. The example of the difference between non-racist ancient slavery versus racist modern slavery is often brought up in similar contexts. A society permitting enslavement by drawing straws would surely violate most basic egalitarian assumptions without, however, incorporating any judgment of unequal worth.

  39. 39.

    Carter also considers the “egalitarian moral perspective to be deontological.” (Carter 2011: 540)

  40. 40.

    Darwall contrasts recognition respect from appraisal respect, a kind of “esteem that is merited or earned by conduct or character.” (Darwall 2006: 122) Recognition respect is “an acknowledgment of someone’s standing to address and be addressed second-personal reasons rooted in the dignity of persons.” (Darwall 2006: 126) In relation to the issue of equality, Dawall writes: “According to morality as equal accountability, to be a person just is to have the competence and standing to address demands as persons to persons, and to be addressed by them, within a community of mutually accountable equals. This second-personal competence gives all persons an equal dignity, irrespective of their merit.” (Darwall 2006: 126) Dawall’s egalitarian claims would have constituted an alternative target for my argument. Why variations in the competence to address and be addressed do not result in variations in dignity would be among my chief questions. Darwall might respond that recognition respect simply does not permit this kind of differentiation, perhaps even as a matter of definition. [“there can be no degrees of recognition respect for [persons]...” (Darwall 1977: 46)]. Yet the substantial question of equality cannot be settled by the provision of intriguing concepts. Should recognition respect be egalitarian by definition, then my argument would correspondingly contest that there is (any basis for) recognition respect. Thus, in response to the impression that my argument is concerned with matters of appraisal respect not recognition respect, I would say that it’s very point is to show how recognition respect ultimately collapses into appraisal respect, or how Darwall’s intended substantial distinction turns out untenable. In a sense, then, it would be fair to characterize my conclusion as holding every intelligible kind of respect to be a kind of appraisal respect. (Cf. Steinhoff 2015a: 156–158)

  41. 41.

    Mary Ann Warren characterizes this difference-making capacity thus: “To have moral status is to be morally considerable, or to have moral standing. It is to be an entity toward which moral agents have, or can have, moral obligations. If an entity has moral status, then we may not treat it in just any way we please; we are morally obligated to give weight in our deliberations to its needs, interests, or well-being. Furthermore, we are morally obligated to do this not merely because protecting it may benefit ourselves or other persons, but because its needs have moral importance in their own right.” (Warren 1997: 3)

  42. 42.

    Rawls framework is the obvious case in point. Sher also alludes to such a model in a footnote. (Sher 2014: 81) The model is also very close to broadly Kantian approach. Thomas Hill writes: “Everyone is, as it were, an equal co-legislator in what Kant calls ‘a kingdom of ends.’” (Hill 2000: 97)

  43. 43.

    Cf. Berlin (1978: 83).

  44. 44.

    Connecting to my remarks from section I, combining the imperative to respect basic rights with non-rights-based principles beyond offers a package many philosophers find attractive.

  45. 45.

    In any plausible version of such a decision scenario, there would be other reasons applicable as well, perhaps of a consequentialist nature. After all, we permit only the relevantly gifted to pursue expensive medical training. Still, the claim that moral status can provide reasons for principle-selection is not incompatible with the claim that other considerations can provide reasons as well. Only the denial of moral status providing reasons is, and that’s the issue.

  46. 46.

    As Cupit asks in a different context, “Why should merely looking equal, when viewed from a particular point of view, entail that justice requires we be treated as equals?” (Cupit 2000: 115)

  47. 47.

    Moral relevancy is a difficult subject of ethical theory, but the debate between status-parity and disparity does not in the first instance hinge on it. The arguments presented and considered in the essay do not rely on controversial assumptions about relevancy.

  48. 48.

    Arneson uses the example of being physically embodied to make the same point. (Cf. Arneson 2015: 41) Both examples would also fail (3), of course.

  49. 49.

    Pojman (1992; 1997a), Kekes (2003), especially in chapter 5, and Steinhoff (2015a) press similar concerns.

  50. 50.

    The formula is: n!/(r!(n−r)!). Plug in 7 billion, and a powerful calculator is needed to generate the huge number of combinations. And this does not even include past and future generations! And if people were supposed necessarily, not merely contingently, equal the numbers would become completely unmanageable.

  51. 51.

    John Rawls’ proposal about range-properties (Rawls 1999: 508) is similar and faces similar problems. It is true that all points within a circle are equally inside that circle despite their varying coordinates. Yet if it’s such a big deal to be in the circle, or in the range, would one not rather want be at the center than at the periphery? And to anticipate the deeper failure of the threshold strategy outlined shortly, points are not located within a given single circle only, but within numerous circles, raising the question of why, accepting the assumption that inclusion in a given circle discriminates in favor of certain points, does the inclusion in yet further “more inner” circles not also discriminate in favor of certain points?

  52. 52.

    Cf. also Arneson (2015: 36–38) and Cupit (2000: 110).

  53. 53.

    Cf. also Sher (2014: 7).

  54. 54.

    As Sher acknowledges when he observes “the structure of human consciousness has been explored in great depth by philosophers from Kant through the phenomenological movement.” (Sher 2014: 82)

  55. 55.

    Sher’s employment of the phrase “each person is equally a subject with” strikes me as suspiciously convenient, evoking the appearance more of a linguistic maneuver than a substantial move in support of status-parity. As an analogy, consider the statement that each of us is equally a subject with some money in our bank account. This provides little comfort to someone with only two cents in their bank account, let alone ground a claim to pecuniary equality. Thus, the statement can no more conceal the substantial variation in bank balances than the statement that each person is equally a subject with a mind or subjectivity can conceal substantial mental or subjectival variations. This is loosely reminiscent of J.R. Lucas ridicule of the inference from all “numbers are equally numbers” to “all numbers are equal.” (Lucas 1997: 106) Even if everyone is equally a subject, it does not follow that everyone is an equal subject.

  56. 56.

    That these differences are immaterial is a possible further point of contention, of course. I do not pursue it, however, since I believe I have a more effective way of contesting Sher’s central argument.

  57. 57.

    Carter emphasizes empirical properties to dissociate plausible egalitarian bases from the “Kantian solution that … relies on a conception of the self that we have good reason to reject.” (Carter 2011: 544) Yet if my argument succeeds, there is another way to respond to the Kantian “solution” Carter neglects.

  58. 58.

    Cf. Regan (2004).

  59. 59.

    That there are in fact degrees of sentience is not implausible.

  60. 60.

    De Waal beautifully documents the capacity of chimpanzees to engage in diachronically extended forms of reciprocity. (De Waal 2009: 42–44)

  61. 61.

    Cf. Rowlands (2012).

  62. 62.

    Cf. Velleman (1991).

  63. 63.

    The chief point of contention will presumably be reasons-sensitivity. If Rowlands (2012) is correct, some animals, including chimpanzees, can display such sensitivity.

  64. 64.

    Immediately after listing the capacity to feel pain as an obviously relevant factor, Williams emphasizes “the capacity to feel affection for others” as a relevant factor too. (Williams 1997: 92)

  65. 65.

    Sher stresses the significance of empathy: Sher (2014: 86).

  66. 66.

    Cf. Baron-Cohen (2011).

  67. 67.

    As is well know, psychopath can be very dangerous for this reason. Robert Harris, a classical psychopath, brutally and gratuitously murdered two teenagers. When this made his brother upset, he laughed and called him a sissy. Then, as if nothing had happened, he proceeded to eat his victims’ hamburgers. When eventually being executed for his crime, his fellow death row inmates celebrated. (Cf. Watson 1987) Hare (1999) provides many more examples.

  68. 68.

    He lists at least eight in Gardner (2006).

  69. 69.

    I am indebted to George Sher, Joshua Spencer, Gopal Sreenivasan and some anonymous referees for The Journal of Ethics for their helpful comments.


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Husi, S. Why We (Almost Certainly) are Not Moral Equals. J Ethics 21, 375–401 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-017-9250-4

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  • Egalitarianism
  • Moral equality
  • Moral rights
  • Moral status