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Jeremy Waldron (left) and Michael Ignatieff: Waldron's model of equality is too formal and abstract, while Ignatieff attempts to provide a corrective (Waldron ©Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Ignatieff © 2016 Daniel Vegel)


If you wander into any Waterstones and scan the shelves for books about equality what you’re going to find are countless books about policy. You’ll find books by gurus like Antony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty or Joseph Stiglitz proposing wealth taxes. You’ll find development economics books like Poor Economics or Why Nations Fail about why inclusive institutions are the answer to global poverty. You’ll find ambitious politicians laying out ideas about how to boost equality of opportunity for children. Or if books about human rights catch your eye, when you pull them down and read them without buying them (conditional, if you have integrity, upon not smudging coffee across the pages), you are going to learn about how well or badly different countries are doing in relation to the Universal Declaration of 1948. What you’re less likely to find are books about the fundamental basis of equality. Why should organically different people be treated in the same way? Whence do we derive human rights?

Enter Jeremy Waldron, one of the most prominent political and legal philosophers working today. Professor at New York University, and previously Chichele Professor at Oxford, until now Waldron’s scholarship has also been preoccupied with policy questions — explorations of the kind of constitutional structures that make for a fair and workable society; investigations of political accountability, the nature of party opposition, the division of powers and the limit of the power of law enforcement (his treatment of the question of whether torture is ever justified has become a set text for undergraduates). But in this book, One Another’s Equals (originally his prestigious Gifford Lectures) Waldron turns from the implications of equality to a treatment of its foundation.

Unusually for a philosopher, Waldron’s book is animated by an example that is not a crazy hypothetical thought-experiment (e.g. if aliens came down, how we work out whether or not we should bestow rights upon them?). Waldron takes the real case of an appallingly racist early-20th-century intellectual, Dr Hastings Rashdall, a fellow of New College, Oxford, pupil of the Utilitarian luminary Henry Sidgwick and the idealist T.H. Green and, embarrassingly, later a man of the church. In his 1907 tome, The Theory of Good and Evil: A Treatise of Moral Philosophy, Rashdall asked the question: for whose benefit society should be organised? His answer: for the small minority of persons “capable of highest intellectual cultivation”, which he then proceeds to equate with “the higher races”. Which then leads him to a terrifying conclusion: “It may be ultimately the very existence of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed that a higher life may be possible for a much smaller number of white men.”

Waldron proceeds to dissect the full ramifications of this abhorrent view. First, this isn’t a simple case of “white’s man burden”. Rashdall isn’t advocating civilising the lower races. He doesn’t think it’s worth trying to civilise “them” at all. Second, the view is even worse than Utilitarianism. Rashdall doesn’t want to sacrifice one for the sake of many. No, Rashdall advises sacrificing the majority of the world’s population (the lower races) for the sake of the (white) minority. Third, Rashdall is not just being unacceptably partial, like parents demanding special treatment for their children. Rashdall thinks he’s responding rationally and consistently to genuine differences among mankind. There is as big a distinction between some humans and other humans as there is between humans and animals, and our obligations should track those differences. We are dealing with differences in kind, not differences in degree.

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