Will Class Become Caste and Birth Become Destiny?

jeremywaldronportraitThe University of Edinburgh’s Annual Gifford Lecture Series has now begun. Professor Jeremy Waldron is University Professor at the New York University Law School. Professor Waldron’s work in jurisprudence and political theory is well known, as are his articles on constitutionalism, democracy, homelessness, judicial review, minority cultural rights, property, the rule of law, hate speech, human dignity, and torture. This post appeared originally on the Gifford Lecture Blog.

In a stimulating opening Gifford Lecture tonight, Professor Jeremy Waldron emphasised the urgency of not only eradicating ‘surface inequality’ in public legal relations, but in carrying out a theological and philosophical examination of what may underpin human equality in a world where ‘grotesque differences in economic lives’ create the risk of ‘leech and leak’ to undermine our commitment to a common humanity. We re-assure ourselves that the ‘surface inequality’ between rich and poor is compatible with an inviolate ‘basic human equality’ which underlies our mutual existence. But is that weakening in our society, such that the view may emerge that ‘the poor are not fully human’ and ‘only the prosperous live fully human lives’? Is there a danger now that a ‘conditional’ legal status due to the vicissitudes of life, such as that of an African-American in jail, becomes re-inforced as a ‘sortal’ status of permanent identity to delineate rights and all human potential, in like kind to the evils of slavery or apartheid in the past?

Professor Waldron began by emphasising that his lecture series would consider an equality ‘high and independent of the merits and deservings of an individual’. It would move beyond notions of economic equality in political philosophy to delve deeper towards consideration of an often pre-supposed ‘basic human equality’, otherwise described as ‘human worth’, ‘human dignity’, or in Dworkin’s terminology, ‘the principle of equal concern and respect’. He asserted that human equality must deny ‘sortal’ status as a valid mode of distinction, emphasising that ‘we are a single status society’ – ‘a caste society, but just one caste’. His investigation in the lecture series will consider the religious account of equality as illuminating the secular approach, but without shirking from gross distortions of the ideal from either perspective.

Using one such distortion as an illumination of what we are denying when we say that we are ‘one another’s equals’, Professor Waldron investigated the ‘deep philosophical racism’ of Rev. Hastings Rashdall, an Oxford philosopher and Anglican priest writing in the early 20th Century. Rashdall wrote that ‘the life of one sentient being may be more valuable than the life of another on account of its potentialities’ as ‘capacity does matter’. Thus, ‘the lower Well-being – it may ultimately be the very existence – of countless Chinamen or negroes must be sacrificed’ for the possible higher life of a smaller number of ‘white men’.

We need to elaborate and articulate why Rashdall was profoundly wrong. Professor Waldron identified our desire to oppose any ‘comparable discontinuities’ as Rashdall had suggested, of a distinction in the ‘human to human realm’, in comparison with those that may exist in the ‘human to animal realm’. In other words, in important categorisations that will thread through the lecture series, Professor Waldron emphasised ‘continuous equality’ without discontinuity of ‘human to human’ unlike ‘human to animal’, and beyond that towards a ‘distinctive equality’ which might elevate human equality to a higher plane.

‘Food for thought’ indeed! What is your reaction to this engaging precursor to the Gifford series? Two questions occur in particular from tonight, on which your views would be very welcome:

  1. As Professor Waldron asked, why are Rashdall’s views ‘obviously wrong’ and so offensive to us? Is it only the overt racism? Or the tone and complacency? Or the anti-utilitarianism of sacrificing many for the good of a few? Or do you agree we must go deeper towards notions of ‘continuous’ or ‘distinctive equality’ to fully express our strong opposition?
  2. Do you share Professor Waldron’s fear of a danger of ‘leech and leak’, such that we might soon become ‘two nations unintelligible to one another’, paying ‘lip service rather than actual service to basic human equality’? Will a new ‘sortal status’ mean that ‘birth becomes destiny’? How imminent is that danger in our society? Is it actually happening now and, if so, how?

Over to you….


Click here for more details of the series, and for tickets for the remaining 2015 lectures.