Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

philosophical position are, first, that the social world is not ‘natural’ – inequality
must be justified and not dismissed as if it were simply the way of the world. Second,
the Enlightenment stresses that human beings are rational– they are capable of
advancing and understanding arguments, such that justifications for equality, or
inequality, are always given to individualhuman beings.
It is a standard, but not necessary, starting point of liberalism – but also of other
ideologies such as socialism, anarchism, feminism and multiculturalism – that
coercively enforced institutions must be justified to those who are subject to them
(although anarchists conclude that coercion cannot be justified). That is, subjects
should in some sense consent to those institutions. Since it is unrealistic to think
we can reach unanimity on how society should be organised, we must assume a
moral standpoint distinct from the standpoints of ‘real people’. The most famous
recent elaboration of this idea can be found in the work of John Rawls. Rawls asks
us to imagine choosing a set of political principles without knowing our identities

  • that is, we do not know our natural abilities, class, gender, religious and other
    beliefs, and so on. This denial of knowledge constitutes what Rawls calls the ‘veil
    of ignorance’: because individuals do not know their identities they must, as a matter
    of reason, put themselves in the shoes of each other person and people are necessarily
    equal. The idea of equality in Rawls’s theory is highly abstract, and the use of the
    veil itself tells us little about how people should be treated. To generate more
    concrete principles of equality Rawls makes certain claims not implied by the veil
    of ignorance, and in that sense he goes beyond moral equality; nonetheless, the
    starting point for Rawls is a situation of moral equality.
    While Rawls draws strongly egalitarian conclusions from the idea of moral
    equality, other political theorists, while endorsing the idea of moral equality, derive
    rather different conclusions. Robert Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia
    (1974) argues that individuals have strong rights to self-ownership, and they enjoy
    these rights equally, and for that reason there are certain things we cannot do to
    people, including taxing their legitimate earnings, where legitimacy is established
    by certain principles of justice. We discuss Nozick’s theory in more detail in Chapter
    4, but the point is that a commitment to moral equality can lead in different
    directions in terms of whether or not we accept further principles of equality.
    Although Nozick’s theory can only very loosely be described as Kantian, both Rawls
    and Nozick make explicit appeal to Kant’s notion of respect for persons: treating
    people as ends in themselves and never merely as ends for others. In Rawls’s case
    this idea is expressed in the equality of the original position, whereas for Nozick it
    is implicit in the notion of (equal) property rights as constraints (or ‘side constraints’)
    on what others can do to us.

Nietzsche contra moral equality

Although it has been open to significantly divergent interpretations, Friedrich
Nietzsche’s work has been the source of the most important critique of moral
equality in modern Western political thought. Rawls identifies him as a radical
perfectionist, where ‘perfectionism’ is understood to be a theory whereby society is
organised with the aim of advancing certain values or ways of life. In Nietzsche’s
case, this means that ‘mankind must continually strive to produce great individuals

Chapter 3 Equality 59
Free download pdf