Richard Wollheim and Isaiah Berlin, “Equality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1955): 281–326.
Isaiah Berlin, “Equality,” in Concepts and Categories, ed. Henry Hardy, introduction by Bernard Williams, foreword by Alisdair Macintyre, 2nd ed., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 106–134.
“Everybody to count for one, and no one for more than one.” This formula forms the “the irreducible minimum of the ideal of equality”. But by itself, it doesn’t mean much. Like most familiar formulas in political philosophy, it is is vague and its connotations have changed over time. It is not uniquely tied to any philosophical system. One could be an enlightement philosophe, a Hobbesian contractualist, a Benthamite utilitarian, or a theist convinced about the immortality of the soul: the formula would still make sense to each of these. In other words, the connection between the formula and the various philosophical doctrines held by those who have advocated the formula is not a logical one, or one of mutual entailment. That’s to say, that you hold a particular philosophy doesn’t imply that you will also necessarily hold the formula of equality.
On the formula of equality as stated by Berlin, the editor adds the following clarification.
This version of the principle is cited and called ‘Bentham’s dictum’ by Mill in Utilitarianism, chapter 5: Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others (Toronto/London, 1963–91), x 257. Bentham’s own wording is ‘every individual in the country tells for one; no individual for more than one’: Rationale of Judicial Evidence, Specially Applied to English Practice, ed. J. S. Mill from Bentham’s manuscripts (London, 1827), iv 475; The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. J. Bowring (Edinburgh, 1838–43), vii 334. Berlin’s paper originally opened with a version which is perhaps a misremembering of Mill’s: ‘Every man to count for one and no one to count for more than one.’
The question that the essay seeks to answer is what, if any, plausibility the formula has on its own, i.e. when it is detached from the philosophies and philosophers that uphold it. The formula is a specific application of a more general principle. This general principle is one that requires that similar cases be accorded similar treatment. If there is a class of human beings, then all human beings, to the extent that they are similar, should be treated similarly. Also, to the extent that they are dissimilar, they must be treated likewise. The claim made by egalitarians is that human beings are similar. More precisely, that they are equal, and that therefore they should be treated equally.
There are two different claims here. One is a factual one: that men are equal. The other is normative: that they should be treated equally. For some remarks on this, see Bernard Williams’ widely read “The Idea of Equality”. My summary is can be found here.
But human beings do not possess complete social and personal uniformity, i.e. all human beings are not in fact identical. So, the principle is generally revised to mean that all human beings should be treated equally in certain important respects. This implies that if there is a sufficient reason — an important respect in which some human being differs from other human beings — then that human being may be treated differentially.
But if one does not specify and then justify the sufficient reason, then this revised principle becomes trivial tautology. It boils down to “it is reasonable to act in manner x save in circumstances y, in which it is not rational, and any circumstances may be y”. To illustrate, it is reasonable to equally respect everyone’s human rights, except during extraordinary circumstances, in which case it is not rational, and any circumstance (the concerned person is a terrorist, or simply a Dalit, an enemy of the Chief Minister etc.) could be an extraordinary circumstance. The point here is that unless what counts as an important respect in which persons should be treated equally or indeed unequally is properly specified and justified, we will have a situation in which any freaking thing could count as a reason for treating people equally or unequally.
What is more, because all entities are members of more than one class, any kind of behaviour can be safely subsumed under the general rule enjoining equal treatment. That’s to say, a man from America might be prohibited from using the men’s washroom in an Indian city by saying that while he might be a man, he is an American (i.e. not Indian, therefore not similar, therefore not equal). The revised principle of equality (that human beings should be treated equally in certain important respects) is easily reduced to such absurdities.
As Bernard Williams puts it: It would be in accordance with this principle [here, the unspecified/non-revised principle of equality], for example, to treat blacks differently from others just because they were black, or women differently just because they were women, and this cannot accord with anyone’s idea of equality.
The principle of equality itself has an implicit justification. An equal distribution of of benefits (and this would include respect) is “‘natural’, self-evidently right and just, and needs no justification, since it is in some sense conceived as being self-justified”. For instance, a society in which everyone possesses and equal amount of property would need no justification. Equality needs no special reasons. But a society in which there is inequality in the possession of property needs justifications: it rightfully honours the hardworking, it encourages enterprise, it is the foundation for economic growth etc. Of course such justifications may be contested, and they are.
“The assumption is that equality needs no reasons, only inequality does so; that uniformity, regularity, similarity, symmetry, . . . need not be specially accounted for, whereas differences, unsystematic behaviour, change in conduct, need explanation and, as a rule, justification.
This assumption involves (or rather is involved in) what is known in the literature as “the presumption of equality” which has been the subject of some consideration. One of the many, many recent essays treating the issue is this.
This acceptance of this implicit justification, this love of order and symmetry, rest on two notions: that of rules, and of equality itself.
“All rules, by definition, entail a measure of equality. In so far as rules are general instructions to act or refrain from acting in certain ways, in specified circumstances, enjoined upon persons of a specified kind, they enjoin uniform behaviour in identical cases.” The existence of a rule enjoins that those that fall under that rule obey it fully, that is to say equally. Disobedience constitutes an exception, and an offence against the rule. Now to the extent that rules appear to be unavoidable in our moral, social, and political lives, the need for equality in the sense that everybody obeys the rules (equally) seems to be an almost universal need and conviction. To the extent that morality is understood as a system of (internally consistent) rules, then the plea for equality is a plea for living a life in accordance to the rules. Inequality here is the breaking or disobedience of rules. And as before, “to provide no reasons for breaking a rule is described as irrational; to give reasons for obeying rules — save in terms of other rules — is regarded as unnecessary: rules are their own justification”.
Three kinds of objections may be directed at this understanding of equality.
The first objection might be this: that the system admits of too many exceptions. This could either be an objection against exceptions as such or against exceptions that are made arbitrarily, i.e. without sufficient reasons.
The second objection might be that the rules themselves are bad or iniquitous. Perhaps some rule may be accused of offending some other higher, wider or more important rule. Others might be rejected because they are simply incompatible with other rules. Or indeed, the equality arising from rules might be suspended in favour of other goals understood to be more important.
The first kind of accusation is often what is meant when it is claimed that a rule is unfair. A rule that that favours Englishmen in the distribution of honours, for instance, might be taken to offend against the rule that says that all humans, irrespective of their nationality, are equal. The latter rule has a wider application which is violated by the former. But the potential to attract this kind of accusation need not be why some rule might be iniquitous. It need only be the case the rule be in conflict with some other rule that does not tend towards equality.
The principle that each is to count for one and none for more than one emerges out of Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy. But consider the utilitarian commitment to happiness/pleasure (put differently, the rule that says the goal of morality is the maximisation of happiness in the society). This commitment is quite compatible with great inequality. “Thus it can be argued that societies organised hierarchically, certain types of medieval society for example, or theocratic societies or even societies founded on slavery, may conceivably offer their members a greater degree of happiness (however this is calculated) than societies in which there is a greater degree of social or economic equality.”
A third objection could be an objection to the very notion of rules. A society may be attacked for living by rules at all. The claim here might be that “a morality not compounded out of rules, but consisting of the pursuit of some ideal in a spontaneous and imaginative way, analogous to the creative activity of a painter or a composer, or to even less disciplined forms of self-expression, where both the use and recognition of rules is at a minimum, is to be preferred”.
Briefly, the objections may be recapitulated thus.
- that rules are broken for no sufficient reason; or
- that the rules are themselves bad or iniquitous or otherwise inadequate; or
- that the rules are deplorable simply because they are rules.
The first is a genuine plea for inequality for it pleads against exceptions. The second is a plea for equality only if it attacks rules that leads to inequality. The third is an attack on the ideal of social equality (at least the kind of equality flowing from rules) as such.
At is barest, the ideal of social equality can be stated by saying that “everything and everybody should be as similar as possible to everything and everybody else”. Here, “inequality — and this must ultimately mean dissimilarity — would be reduced to a minimum”.
No one has ever tried to realise this absurd ideal but it might be worth considering what this ideal would be like. Τhe biggest argument for equality has been due to the disparity in the possession of goods. These goods could be property, political or social power, status, opportunities for the development of faculties or the obtaining of experiences, social and personal liberties and privileges of all kinds. The argument is that any such disparity offends against either the principle of natural rights or rationality. Those who believe in natural rights are worried not so much about equality as such but with what those natural rights are, how they may be discovered and verified, and whether such rights apply to all men as such or only to some, and if only to some, why? and so on. Those that believe in reason take it that equality extends to the entire field of human relations and can be offended only if there is a sufficient reason to do so. While these two stances often go together, the former stance is quite compatible with inequality for it might be discovered (or argued) that natural rights are after all applicable only to some, or that the natural rights ordain some to possess more goods than others. The latter go further. They would protest against any inequality unless a sufficient reason is given.
Let’s look closer at this latter stance. The inequalities of wealth and position which are so prominent because they affect our human life more crucially than others are only some of the inequalities that may obtain in society. Consider the power wielded by the conductor of an orchestra, a minister in a state, a teacher in a classroom. Even the most committed egalitarian does not denounce this inequality. A fanatical egalitarian might argue that if the differential power of a conductor, a minister, and a teacher is for the purpose of playing a symphony, governing a state, and teaching the young, better that there are no symphonies, no governing, and no teaching. Such views, however are not seriously entertained even by egalitarians.
But there are serious obstacles to equality. Consider the unequal distribution of what might be called natural gifts. In a society where there is a high degree of economic opportunity, the strong, able, cunning, ambitious, relentless, ruthless, etc. are more likely to acquire more power and wealth than those who do not have those qualities. The fanatical egalitarian will be horrified at this. These inequalities must be rooted out. Human beings must be, he might argue, conditioned so that the greatest level of mental and physical qualities is preserved. “Only in a society where the greatest degree of similarity between the members occurs, where physical characteristics, mental endowment, emotional disposition, and conduct are as uniform as possible, where people differ as little as possible from each other in any respect whatever, will true equality be attainable”.
The point is that “so long as there are differences between men, some degree of inequality may occur; and that there is no kind of inequality against which, in principle, a pure egalitarian may not be moved to protest, simply on the ground that he sees no reason for tolerating it, no argument which seems to him more powerful than the argument for equality itself – equality which he regards not merely as an end in itself, but as the end, the principal goal of human life.”
This is the absolute ideal which no serious thinker has ever put forward. But all demands of equality are modifications of this ideal. One modification is that while natural human characteristics (mental or physical) cannot and should not be altered, everyone must be accorded political and legal equality. If equality is granted in the political and judicial sphere (say everyone is allowed equal access to and participation in the government, is granted a certain minimum of liberties), then other spheres (say, the economic) must be left alone. This is the familiar liberal doctrine.
To the objection that political and legal equality leads to economic inequality (where the clever, and enterprising enrich themselves at the expense of others), the liberal reply is that that is the price for political and legal equality. This implies that there is only one way (here, the political and legal) in which men can be “counted as one”. To count men as one in all possible respect is not only impracticable but also undesirable. And in a society where people start off with equal economic rights (to hold property, for instance), civil rights (to free speech, for instance) and political rights (to associate with one another) without any prejudice to birth, colour and other physically unalterable characteristics, in such a society, the liberal argues, equality is not infringed. In effect this is an argument for a liberal laissez faire society is an argument for liberty at the expense of equality. The point here is that in considering, demanding or arguing against equality, ideals other than equality (liberty, in the case above) conspicuously play a vital role. This is so even for philosophers who argue for the widest possible reach of equality.
The doctrine of equality in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793 owes at least as much to him [Condorcet] as it does to Rousseau or other thinkers. Yet even Condorcet contemplates the necessity for the government of human beings by men of enlightenment, above all by experts, men versed in the new, not yet created sciences of the behaviour of man – sociology, anthropology and psychology – who alone can create an organisation in which the greatest number of the desires of rational men will not be frustrated, as they have been hitherto, by prejudice, superstition, stupidity and vice. Yet this elite is plainly to have greater powers than those whom they are to govern disinterestedly. And the reason for this is not merely that, without this, true equality cannot be achieved for the majority of men, but also that certain other ends must be striven for, such as happiness, virtue, justice, progress in the arts and sciences, the satisfaction of various moral and spiritual wants, of which equality, of whatever kind, is only one.
[COMMENT: There follows a discussion of some further aspects of the formula of equality which, the discussion I mean, might be characterised as quaint. I have not bothered to summarise it. I don’t think that discussion is particularly useful. It is very readable. Also, summarising it would only do violence to it. It will be clear why when you read it. I only quote the main thesis — the main thesis as I take it — below.]
“Equality is one of the oldest and deepest elements in liberal thought, and is neither more nor less ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ than any other constituent in them. Like all human ends it cannot itself be defended or justified, for it is itself that which justifies other acts – means taken towards its realisation.”