Bernard Williams ‘The Idea of Equality’

Amanda asked:

I’m struggling with Bernard Williams ‘The Idea of Equality’. Can anybody help?!

Answer by Eric DeJardin

In ‘The Idea of Equality,’ Williams aims to show how we can arrive at robust conceptions of factual and normative equality — viz. equality of respect (ER) and equality of opportunity (EO) — that can help ground political equality by ‘build[ing] up’ notions of equality that, in an attempt to avoid obvious falsehoods and absurdities, are too weak and insubstantial to do the work themselves.

Williams states that moral claims ‘arise from’ certain human characteristics. When some human characteristic is universal, therefore, universal moral claims, and hence universal moral obligations, arise from it. If universal moral claims are denied on irrelevant grounds to any people or groups of people in whom the universal characteristics that ground them are instantiated, then they are being subjected to unequal treatment in the moral sense.

One universal human characteristic, Williams claims, is the ‘desire for self-respect,’ by which he means ‘a certain human desire to be identified with what one is doing, to be able to realize purposes of one’s own, and not to be the [involuntary] instrument of another’s will.’ It is the universal desire, and the basic human facts that make it possible, that constitutes ER in the factual sense, and the universal claim that constitutes ER in the normative sense. But what does the notion of ‘respect’ itself involve?

According to Williams, the content of the notion of respect can be glimpsed if we contrast viewing others from ‘the technical point of view’ (TPOV), I.e. identifying them with their social roles, successes, failures or status, with viewing them from ‘the human point of view’ (HPOV), I.e. seeing them, or attempting to see them, as they see themselves, their social roles, and the world. To treat one with respect involves making the ‘effort at identification’ that seeing someone from HPOV presupposes. It is here that Williams explicitly links up the notion of respect with the notion of equality by pointing out that social roles function as ‘conspicuous bearers of… inequality,’ and hence insofar as treating others with respect involves discounting their social roles as we consider them, it removes a substantial obstacle to seeing people as equals.

But this is not all that the notion of respect involves, for one could make an effort at understanding others from HPOV while degrading or exploiting them, a situation which involves acts or attitudes that any coherent notion of respect would seem to preclude. Further, in some cases, as Williams notes, those who are degraded or exploited cannot clearly perceive their degradation or exploitation; viewing others from HPOV, therefore, is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treating them with respect. Hence, to satisfy the obligation of respect, we need to go further than HPOV and adopt towards them an attenuated version of the ideal observer stance, seeing others not merely as they see themselves, but rather as they would see themselves if their self understanding hadn’t been contaminated by their social roles and the social structures in which they exist.

But from this it follows that people can be more or less conscious of this contamination, and Williams uses this fact to bridge the gap between the moral obligations that ER imposes on people and the political implications of ER. If ER both obligates us to see others from HPOV as ideal observers and prohibits us from degrading or exploiting others, then, Williams argues, the ‘ideal of a stable hierarchy must… disappear.’ This destabilization is enhanced when it is coupled with the notion that the role of people within a social system is ‘[a] product of the social system itself.’ So, if ER precludes degradation and exploitation, it precludes the use of propaganda and social conditioning to suppress the social awareness of the ‘lower’ orders that the enlightened hierarchical idealist must support if a stable hierarchy is to be maintained; indeed, ER on the contrary requires an obligatory enhancement of social awareness. But then if the moral obligations of ER are carried through consistently, Williams argues, we see in the consequent incoherence of the notion of a hierarchical system that is at the same time stable, enlightened and an advocate of ER, that we’ve made a significant move towards grounding political equality.

After considering ER, which is concerned with ways in which people are equal, Williams moves on to consider EO, which is concerned with ways in which people are unequal, and hence, unlike, ER is also concerned with ‘the distributions of, or access to, certain goods to which their inequalities are relevant.’ Williams begins by distinguishing inequality of need, and the goods which need ‘demands,’ from inequality of merit, and the goods which merit ‘earns.’ The ‘proper ground’ for the distribution of needed goods is, Williams argues, the need itself, but the proper ground for the distribution of merited goods is not necessarily merit alone, for unlike the case of needed goods, it’s not the case the only those who earn merited goods can be said to desire them. We must consider, then, with merited goods, ‘not only… the distribution of the good, but also… the distribution of the opportunity of achieving the good,’ the latter of which ‘can be said to be distributed equally to everybody.’ Questions about EO arise when we consider merited goods that are scarce, and that many people from all ‘sections of society’ desire. Hence, EO is fundamentally concerned not only with who acquires merited goods, but with who is excluded from acquiring merited goods, and so with the proper grounds of exclusion from access to them.

After considering a number of formulations of EO, Williams concludes that the proper grounds of exclusion from access to merited goods (1) must be ‘appropriate or rational for the good in question,’ (2) should be ‘such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them,’ and (3) cannot comprise socially correctable disadvantages that are strongly correlated with certain sections of society.

With condition (3), we see a sense in which ER and EO converge, for ER obliges us to discount the social roles that act as bearers of inequality, while EO obliges us to discount the correctable social factors that help determine the distribution of those social roles. In this sense, both ER and EO oblige us to look beyond socially determined bearers of inequality to the person himself; and although this may not get us all the way to a notion of the equality of persons, it does, Williams argues, ‘[move us] recognizably in that direction.’

But it is at the point at which ER and EO seem to converge that we can most clearly see both the ways in which they differ and the ways in which these differences, coupled with certain psychological and anthropological considerations, lead ultimately to a deep conflict between the two.

First, ER is invoked in cases in which people are said to be equal, whereas EO is invoked in cases in which people are admitted to be unequal.

Second, ER has both factual and normative elements, whereas EO is entirely normative, and hence must rely on a distinct factual conception of equality to ground it.

Third, ER is not concerned, as EO is, with the distribution of limited goods, from which it follows that ER does not rely, as EO does, on the distinction between need and merit.

Fourth, ER obliges us not to focus at all on social status, whereas EO is fundamentally concerned with the distribution of goods the possession of which almost inevitably confers social status, and which are at least partly desired because of this.

Fifth, ER is fundamentally concerned with the desires, aims and beliefs of a person not with an eye to their efficacy in bringing about certain ends, but rather insofar as they uniquely identify each person as an individual, whereas EO looks upon them as potentially modifiable human characteristics that may or may not conduce to the achievement of specific ends; hence, with ER we find ourselves reflecting on recognizable persons, whereas with EO, pushed to its logical extreme, we find ourselves reflecting on persons conceived of as ‘pure subjects or bearers of predicates.’

We are now able to see the myriad ways in which ER and EO might conflict in practice, and we are also in a position to understand better the reasons that explain this conflict.

ER and EO conflict insofar as they are targeted at distinct ends: The end of ER is to treat persons as they are independent of their social roles, I.e. to accord them a degree of dignity simply because they are by nature beings of a certain kind, viz. conscious, rational agents with a particular view of themselves and of the world; the end of EO, on the other hand, is to provide every person with a fair and equal opportunity to achieve some desired but limited end which may ultimately frustrate our efforts at securing ER by acting socially as a bearer of inequality.

The reason that a vigorous pursuit of EO may ultimately frustrate ER is that our notion of respect is itself prima facie inconsistent: on the one hand, we accord, and desire to accord people respect simply in virtue of their being people; on the other hand, one of the specific aspects of persons to which we accord respect is their capacity for achievement.


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