Monday, January 14, 2019

Elizabeth Anderson’s moral and democratic reformulation of equality

First, please read this article, “The Philosopher Redefining Equality,” by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, from which the following snippet is taken: 

“To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem. A quadriplegic adult was blocked from civil society if buildings weren’t required to have ramps. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence [one might note the means of equalizing wealth have not of course been limited to progressive taxation schemes]. ‘People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,’ Anderson wrote.” 

The idea of being “equally free” as a democratic principle (which is intrinsic to the tripartite motto, or perhaps better, triune ideal, liberté, égalité, fraternité) need not and should not involve “shifting from the remit of egalitarianism” insofar as that entails a move to toward equalizing wealth, as long as that is not understood in an absolute sense (and I don’t think most political theorists of this persuasion have viewed it that way). The problem today is the societal distribution of wealth around the globe has been moving dramatically in an inegalitarian direction for some time now, such that many of the conditions of being “equally free” in Anderson’s salutary democratic sense are undermined. In other words, a more egalitarian distribution of wealth (which involves, at the same time, an ecological or environmental constraint of the nature or character of such wealth) is a necessary yet not sufficient condition of being “equally free” in truly robust democratic terms.* And those moral and political philosophers with egalitarian sensibilities, however different their precise philosophical views, from John Rawls to Amartya Sen, from G.A. Cohen to Martha Nussbaum, for example, all appear to appreciate this, although one might wish they had devoted more attention to notions of solidarity and, especially fraternity (as realized in motley reference groups and communities); the latter, I suspect, is indispensable to the widespread incarnation and cherishing of the notion of being “equally free” in a would-be democratic society.

Here is where Jerry Cohen’s critique of “classical Marxists” is spot-on: “It was partly because they believed that equality was historically inevitable that classical Marxists did not spend so much time thinking about why equality was morally right, about exactly what made it morally binding” [which is what, I think, Anderson is in effect attempting to do]. Hence the demise of “scientific socialism” brings us back to normative political philosophy, ideals, and even the utopian socialists of yesteryear or utopian thought more generally. And this is one reason Cohen later came to believe that there is some truth in the proposition (or ‘nostrum’) that “for inequality to be overcome, there needs to a revolution in feeling or motivation, as opposed to (just) in economic structure” [what Rudolf Bahro meant in part by the need for a ‘cultural revolution’]. Put in simpler if not more stark terms: “how selfish people are affects the prospects for equality and justice” (keeping in mind that whatever selfishness exists, may be conditioned by capitalism, or more broadly, the Rawlsian ‘basic structure,’ as Cohen appreciates, thus the disappearance of capitalism or change in the basic structure may alter the frequency or intensity of selfishness in the general population, but we should hardly expect it to be thereby eliminated). Cohen also came to realize the significance of an ethos of justice “that informs individual choices,” an ethos that is intrinsically related in various ways to the “basic structure” of society, which is close in spirit at least, to Anderson’s point about the democratic nature of equal freedom, this ethos being the requisite democratic sentiment in social or moral psychological terms for motivating the struggle for democratic equality, i.e., being equally free. Cohen came to this conclusion in his critique of Rawls’s “difference principle” (which we can’t go into here):

“A society that is just within the terms of the difference principle … requires not simply just coercive rules, but also an ethos of justice that informs individual choices. In the absence of such an ethos, inequalities will obtain that are not necessary to enhance the condition of the worst off: the required ethos promotes a distribution more just than what the rules of the economic game by themselves can secure. And what is required is indeed an ethos, a structure of response lodged in the motivations that inform everyday life ….”

We can thus begin here to speak of democratic distributive justice, which is not “economistic,” but which retains, as a necessary but not sufficient condition, economic egalitarianism. Perhaps one lesson from Anderson’s Sen (or Nussbaum)-like focus on functionings (an ugly word insofar as it applies to persons, but now common in the literature) and capabilities is to accord far more consideration to the public rhetoric we choose in making our arguments and policy recommendations in pursuit of more equalized wealth distribution within the overarching value of being equally free. In any case, being equally free is indeed the foremost desideratum of the (reconstructed Liberal) democrat, and thus this democrat is, at the same time, a socialist. 

* As to what the phrase “robust democratic terms” means or implies please see, for example, Robert E. Goodin’s Reflective Democracy (2003) and Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice After the Deliberative Turn (2008); the works of Nadia Urbinati; and, finally, for how this might be understood in terms of a eudaimonistic individualism (or, if you will, the democratic ideal of ‘self-rule’) which accords essential formative or developmental roles to tradition(s), worldview(s), and community(ies), see David Norton’s Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (1991).
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