9 votes

The Philosopher Redefining Equality

3 comments

  1. patience_limited Link
    I found this very resonant with ideas I've been playing with for a while. It's a perfect New Yorker article, in the sense that it leaves you hungry to read the original material produced by the...

    I found this very resonant with ideas I've been playing with for a while. It's a perfect New Yorker article, in the sense that it leaves you hungry to read the original material produced by the subject of the biography.

    Some significant excerpts below, but I suggest reading the whole thing.

    “Almost everyone wants to be respected and esteemed by others, so how can you make that compatible with a society of equals?”

    “If you look back at the origins of liberalism, it starts first with a certain settlement about religious difference,” she said. “Catholics, Protestants—they’re killing each other! Finally, Germany, England, all these places say, We’re tired of these people killing each other, so we’re going to make a peace settlement: religious toleration, live and let live.”

    She spread her hands wider. “Then something remarkable happens,” she said. “People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home, or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains?” She paused. “That is what it is to be free.”

    To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem. A quadriplegic adult was blocked from civil society if buildings weren’t required to have ramps. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,” Anderson wrote.

    Her first book, “Value in Ethics and Economics,” appeared that year, announcing one of her major projects: reconciling value (an amorphous ascription of worth that is a keystone of ethics and economics) with pluralism (the fact that people seem to value things in different ways). Philosophers have often assumed that pluralistic value reflects human fuzziness—we’re loose, we’re confused, and we mix rational thought with sentimental responses. Anderson proposed that, actually, pluralism of value wasn’t the fuzz but the thing itself. She offered an “expressive” theory: in her view, each person’s values could be various because they were socially expressed, and thus shaped by the range of contexts and relationships at play in a life. Instead of positing value as a basic, abstract quality across society (the way “utility” functioned for economists), she saw value as something determined by the details of an individual’s history. Like her idea of relational equality, this model resisted the temptation to flatten human variety toward a unifying standard. In doing so, it helped expand the realm of free and reasoned economic choice.

    Shortly after arriving at Michigan, she had been struck by the work of a law-school colleague, Don Herzog, which incorporated a turn-of-the-century school of American thought called pragmatism. To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now. This approach, and the friendship that had borne it, enriched Anderson’s work. Herzog has offered notes on almost everything she has published in the past three decades.

    The challenge of pluralism is the challenge of modern society: maintaining equality amid difference in a culture given to constant and unpredictable change. It is the fashion in America these days to define political virtue by position. Richard is on the side of history, we might say, because he’s to the left of Irma on this issue and slightly to the right of Marco on that one. Anderson would resist this way of thinking, not least because it calls for intellectual convergence. It’s anti-pluralistic and tribalist. It celebrates ideology; it presumes that certain models have absolute, not situational, value. Rather than fighting for the ascendancy of certain positions, Anderson suggests, citizens should fight to bolster healthy institutions and systems—those which insure that all views and experiences will be heard. Today’s righteous projects, after all, will inevitably seem fatuous and blinkered from the vantage of another age.

    "Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government."

    4 votes
  2. thundergolfer Link
    This is a lonngg read (not unusual for The New Yorker) but damn is it good. It's such a good mix of exploring the subject's work and exploring the subject's life. The details about her parents and...

    This is a lonngg read (not unusual for The New Yorker) but damn is it good. It's such a good mix of exploring the subject's work and exploring the subject's life. The details about her parents and her honeymoon were pretty amusing.

    2 votes