Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2017

Anderson on Equality


We started with three more thesis updates. Then we discussed Elizabeth Anderson’s essay “What is the Point of Equality?” (Anderson 1999). Anderson’s article develops in reaction to the project that Dworkin launched (Dworkin 1981). While she has detailed criticisms of Dworkin and other “luck egalitarians,” her chief point is that the project is fundamentally misconceived. This is because the kind of equality that they labor to define is not important. In its place, Anderson proposes an alternative that she calls “democratic equality.”

Anderson’s Criticism of Dworkin

Generally speaking, if you’re going to find a problem with a well-written philosophy article, it will be in the first few pages. A good paper will be internally consistent and have only a few minors errors at most. So your best bet for finding a point to contest it will be by paying careful attention to the way that it frames the problem.

That is what Anderson does.

The question Dworkin seeks to answer is: what does a society have to do in order to treat its members as equals (Dworkin 1981, 283)? He thinks that part of the answer is that a society treats its members as equals only if it ensures that its members have equal shares of the society’s resources devoted to their lives (Dworkin 1981, 289). This is what leads him to the project he carries out in the article we read, namely, specifying how we determine what counts as an equal share.

Anderson, by contrast, thinks that a society treats its members as equals if and only if its members treat one another as equals. The kind of equality that really matters, according to her, is equality in social relations. The distribution of resources is a secondary concern and there is no particular reason for thinking that equal social relations require equal resources.

Speaking for myself, I’m persuaded that she is right about this basic point. At the very least, I think she exposed a gap in Dworkin’s reasoning. He has not explained how he moves from “how does a society treat its members as equals?” to “what is an equal distribution resources?”

Criticisms of Anderson

I said that I did not think her criticisms of the luck egalitarians were always fair. Generally speaking, I think they mostly show that a single-minded pursuit of equality would have the flaws of a single-minded pursuit of any social goal: it would lead one to trample on other values. But Dworkin was only trying to define equality as one important social value among others and so I don’t think he was recommending a single-minded pursuit of equality.

Aaron suggested that many of the criticisms of luck egalitarianism could also be turned against democratic equality. For example, Nico had us go over an argument about personal responsibility. The upshot of this was that luck egalitarianism would, in practice, encourage people to seek to blame their misfortune on bad brute luck since doing so is the key to social compensation (Anderson 1999, 311). So far from enforcing personal responsibility, luck egalitarianism would turn us into a society of whiners. Aaron wondered whether the same thing could be said of democratic equality’s rules about oppression. If we put those into practice, wouldn’t that encourage people to whine about how they are being oppressed? The point wasn’t really about how persuasive the argument is as that the same standards should apply both ways. If it’s a good point against one, it should also be valid against the other and vice versa.

Criticisms of Philosophy

Professor Brown shared my enthusiasm for Anderson’s broad point: equal social relations are a lot more important than equal amounts of stuff. But she criticized democratic equality for lacking realism. Equal social relations are great. But there are so many reasons why it is hard to achieve social equality. How do we get from here to there?

Professor Brown’s criticism is like Etelle’s criticism of Rawls from earlier in the term. What’s the point of these idealized pictures of just societies? As the philosophers see it, the idea is to come up with a standard against which we can measure the societies that we actually have.

Speaking as a member of the philosophy tribe, I will say that I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I understand what they’re doing. On the other, I share Prof. Brown and Etelle’s reservations about this kind of project. At the very least, I don’t think it’s obvious that producing these highly moralized theories is the only thing that philosophers ought to do when they look at societies. I’m also a little curious at how we got to the point where this is what we mostly do; it seems to me that this is not the way it has always been. But that’s a different topic.

Professor Brown also said that she thought Anderson had made an important point about philosophy, namely, that it spends too much time on contrived examples like “would a society treat its members as equals if it did not subsidize people who just want to surf all day?” rather than confronting real examples of inequality, like sexism and racism.

I think she’s right about that. It’s weird that some of the great works in political philosophy were written by Americans during the 1960s and did not discuss either sex or race (Rawls 1999; Nozick 1974). I myself didn’t say anything about race in Philosophy 33 until I was prodded to do so by the College’s new Analyzing Difference requirement. It just didn’t seem to fit the material. Of course, once I thought about it, it was obvious that I was wrong. But the blinders of training and habit can be strong.

I do want to give a partial defense of the philosophers, though. It is that sexism and racism are boring. A good question in philosophy has more than one apparently compelling answer. There should be something to be said on both sides. But the idea that some people are superior to others simply because of their sex or race is irrational and the rationalizations that people offer are transparently bad. Racism and sexism are boring because there is nothing interesting to say in their defense. So I can understand the thought that the problems posed by racism and sexism are not philosophical ones. Eliminating racism and sexism are evidently important projects, but the social sciences are better equipped to inform those projects than philosophy is. I don’t mean to say that philosophy is beyond criticism here. On the contrary, as I said in the previous paragraph, I think it’s often blinkered in a bad way. I’m just trying to say that I can see a less malign source of what looks like willful avoidance of these topics.

Update November 2

Having thought about it, I think that the criticism of Anderson that I discussed in the previous section is a bit unfair. We don’t know how to make social relations completely equal. But we do know how to make them more equal and that should count.

For example, we know that wheelchair ramps make it easier for people who have to use wheelchairs to enter buildings as equals. If a public building has a ramp, people in wheelchairs can get in under their own power rather than, say, having to ask someone to pick them up and carry them in. So requiring wheelchair ramps and similar accommodations strikes me as a clear way of something the government can do to make social relations more equal. And this is a case that Anderson discusses (Anderson 1999, 331).

We also know that stereotyping raises problems for equal social relations. If all the prestigious positions go to white men, people will tend to assume that white men are superior and others are inferior. That makes it hard for people to relate to one another as equals. An obvious solution is to give incentives for diversity wherever there is hierarchy. Affirmative action requirements accomplish this through mandates and I’m sure there are clever kinds of less drastic incentives.

The more general point is that Anderson has a blizzard of examples and quite a few of them show that there are some things that could be done to make social relations more equal. That should count in reply to the criticism.

Some Interesting Reading

I would like to share two very interesting articles that touch on the difficulties of establishing equal social relationships.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods?” does just what the title says. It explains why poor people spend money on nice clothes and other luxuries. (This is what I was referring to when we were talking about Shakira’s project.)

Kevin D. Williamson’s “The White-Minstrel Show” is about a lot of things, but its remarks about how his mother behaved at the bottom of the piece are relevant the theme of social equality.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (2): 287–337.

Dworkin, Ronald. 1981. “What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 10 (4): 283–345.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.