This series of Gifford Lectures from noted expert of law and contemporary philosophy Jeremy Waldron concerns itself with the concept of equality. Despite the vast array of differing capabilities among humans generally, there is a long tradition of maintaining that humans are, in some way, equal. On this rests much of the Western liberal and egalitarian tradition, perhaps most famously exemplified in the United States Constitution or, in a modern example such as the UN declaration of human rights. Talk of equality in this kind of discourse usually assumes equity or sameness between persons (in some sense) but these claims have to be argued and not simpoly stated if there are to have any persuasive force, and this seems to be the motivating aim of Waldron’s collection of lectures. Beginning with a critique of utilitarianism – that most egalitarian and secular of moral philosophy, Waldron dedicates a whole chapter to the theologian Hastings Rashdall who used utilitarian arguments to make the case for racism – Rashdall’s argument rests upon the differences in capacity present in humans and the worth and value ascribed to it. Capacity does seem to matter in some way and so if equality is to be defended there needs to be something other than capacity which can ground this philosophical and legal tradition. Thus, much of the rest of the collection is based upon Waldron’s search to give a response to this old, pernicious argument.
Waldron’s solution is what he terms a ‘range property’, which allows for a degree of intensity, as well as some flexibility in how it is applied. (An example of such is that of being in America – one can have that property whilst being on the coast, or central Iowa – neither one is more American than the other despite the differences between them). The issue here is that Waldron cannot dismiss differential human capacity – whilst Waldron’s argument makes the point that different capacities of humans produce different levels of good, what matters, for the racists like Rashdall is that there is a clear case for favouring one group of humans over another. What this argument drives home is the extent to which Waldron’s argument feels disconnected from the material realities and systemic structures which are, by and large, responsible for producing the circumstances which limit opportunities and abilities within certain groups. The vagaries of capitalism are almost entirely absent from Waldron’s argument, which, given the ways capitalist systems are imbricated in the structures of society which are supposed to uphold equality, seems to be something of an oversight. What matters is not just equality, but as Marxist theorists of justice such as China Mieville have proposed, what is more important is both dignity and justice. Without those two, equality remains an idealist dream removed from the material struggles of life.