Ronald Dworkin: Theory of Equality | Philosophy on Blog#42

A Theory of Equality

Professor Ronald Dworkin presented his theory of equality in front of the Carnegie Council on December 6, 2011. Following are the video and my own transcription of this 6-minute segment:

The important concept for our politics now, is the concept of equality. Political philosophers have written about equality from both the left and the right. From the Liberal position and and the Conservative position as if it was perfectly clear what equality means. Equality means everybody has the same something as everybody else. Everybody has the same bank account wealth, or everyone has the same happiness, or everyone achieves the same success in life. These are all theories that you will find in the philosophical literature. And, generally, as soon as someone offers a theory of that kind, equality means that everybody has the same amount of money, it will follow that equality is not a very compelling ideal.

So I want to start rather differently. I want to start with a general account of political obligation of what a state, in particular, owes to its citizens and see what conception of equality follows from understanding politics at that deep a level.

Coercive government, and that means all government of anything larger than the Carnegie Council. Coercive government needs a justification that explains why it isn’t a terminal insult to human dignity to force somebody to do what he thinks wrong as, of course, government must do.

I argue that government lacks title, lacks moral title to coerce, unless it respects the dignity of its subjects. And I argue for a theory of dignity that comes to this:There is a basic condition of political legitimacy. No government is legitimate unless it meets that condition: the government must treat each and every person over whom it claims dominion with an equal concern, and an equal respect.

An equal concern means, I argue, that social policy must take the fate of each individual to be equally important with the fate of any other. So when deciding on a political policy, it can’t discount the effect on some citizens. Obviously, it can’t do that because of their race. But it can’t do that because of their economic class, either.

Equal respect is a rather different requirement. Equal respect means that government must respect the dignity of each individual by allowing each individual to determine for himself or herself what would count as a good life. What counts as a successful life. That doesn’t mean that we should be skeptical about that fundamental ethical question. It means that our idea of the good life includes, as a cardinal condition, that a good life means facing this question for yourself, and arriving with conviction to living a life according to that conviction.

If I’m right, a theory of equality, say, economic equality, must, once again, solve simultaneous equations. It must reach an economic distribution which, at once, treats everyone’s fate with equal concern, and respects people’s responsibility to make their own decisions. That cannot be done by achieving flat equality. It can’t be done by running the community as a Monopoly game in which all the money gets taken in and redistributed at the end of each year. It can’t do that because that would be to make individual decisions about education, investment, leisure, completely pointless.

On the other hand, government can’t just say, we’ll have a market, and wherever the market ends, we will consider equal treatment. Because people who are disabled, or people who do not have the talent to make what the market demands will suffer. And they’ll suffer in ways that have nothing to do with the choices they made and nothing to do with their own responsibility. How do we solve this simultaneous equation? How do we treat people both with equal concern and respect equally to their responsibility to make decisions for themselves?


This segment is taken from Professor Dworkin’s “Justice for Hedgehogs” lecture at the Carnegie Council. Here is the full lecture:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

For a full transcript, click here.


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  • markdouglas

    I had to pretend BS like this was meaningful, when I got a degree in political science. Im happy I am now free to point out — the above says nothing meaningful, is self indulgent and written for the author to flatter himself. ON one hand, on the other hand, blah blah.

    If you care to decode this, he is really saying “I understand these things at a deep level” and by the way, government should treat people with dignity.

    He does not want to step on anyone’s toes, he just wants to sound smart. At least this isn’t the kind of BS that gets people hateful. It’s benign. For that he deserves thanks.

    That’s probably the kind of meaningless tripe he was paid to put out there.

    • Dear Mark,

      Would it be completely out of line of me to think that you come at this from a purely Libertarian point of view?

  • paulhummerman

    Describing something as BS doesn’t really contribute. To me it seems Dworkin is saying something significant: that equality means that everyone has the same rights and dignity, irrespective of their economic status, health, religion etc. In particular everyone should have the same rights before the law. That means does not mean the same right to hire a good lawyer, since clearly the poor cannot afford good lawyers. Surely this is the essence of humanity, the recognition that we are all in the same boat.
    Dworkin talks about “simultaneous equations”, which does sound a bit superior. But it’s just a compact way of saying that since we cannot provide everyone with the same resources and still maintain those resources, we should strive for a system that maximizes resources for the poorest (since by definition everyone else is even better off. You do have to think about this a bit, but who said that decency was going to be easy?

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