The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (14): Equal Relationships as Prerequisites for Freedom

One way to solve the traditional conflict between freedom and equality is offered by Elizabeth Anderson. If you want to live a free life, you have to stand in relations of equality with others. Oppressive or exploitative relationships are both unequal and unfree. Historically, unequal relationships such as “natural” hierarchies between social groups (sexes, races, classes etc.) and exploitative economic structures (slavery, early capitalism, colonialism etc.) have often if not always caused a lack of freedom among those on the wrong side of the unequal relationships.

The inequality inherent in those relationships implies the right of the superior to inflict violence on the inferior, to segregate them, to force them to obey, to exclude them from politics and public life, or to conquer and colonize them. These rights claimed by the superior over the inferior result in diminished freedom for the inferior. If you’re subjected to violence, force, segregation, conquest or exclusion then you’re unfree in any sense of the word: you can’t do what you want, your choices and opportunities are restricted, you lack autonomy and the power to govern yourself etc. Conversely, if you are equal then by definition you’re not subjected to those harms and you are free. Hence, if we want to be free we need to be equals.

This argument also sheds some light on the longstanding controversy about the nature of equality. “Equality of what?” is an important battleground in philosophy (see here and here for instance) but the terms of the argument are usually restricted to resources, opportunities, welfare, preference satisfaction, capabilities, rights etc. Equality of social position and equality as the absence of domination or exploitation are often sidelined by less relational forms of equality. Anderson is right to be unhappy with the focus on equality of resources, capabilities or preference satisfaction. People can have equal resources, equal capabilities and equal preference satisfaction and still live under the domination of groups that consider themselves superior.

Perhaps the capabilities approach can handle this problem, assuming that one of the required capabilities is the capability to escape domination. Maybe the same is true for preference based theories assuming that a preference for non-domination counts just as much as or more than other preferences. Still, let’s not forget that preferences can be adaptive, that people can enjoy a wide range of capabilities in very authoritarian systems, that people’s expectations of capabilities are socially framed by the most powerful voices in society, and that non-relational notions of equality in general can cement relationships of superiority and inferiority by giving too much attention to people’s lack of resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction. Anderson has famously argued that non-relational notions of equality make

the basis for citizens’ claims on one another the fact that some are inferior to others in the worth of their lives, talents, and personal qualities. Thus, its principles express contemptuous pity for those the state stamps as sadly inferior and uphold envy as a basis for distributing goods from the lucky to the unfortunate. Such principles stigmatize the unfortunate. (source)

The difference between notions of equality focused on resources, capabilities and preferences on the one hand, and more relational notions on the other can’t be found in their different approach to freedom; both notions of equality are concerned about freedom. Those who argue that equality is primarily a matter of resources, capabilities and preferences do so because they believe – correctly – that people need resources, capabilities and preference satisfaction for their freedom. And those, like Anderson but also Philip Pettit, who argue that equality should be viewed through the lens of relationships, also do so because they believe that freedom depends on equal relationships.

The difference therefore between the two groups is a different assumption about the requirements of freedom. One argues that freedom requires an equal level of resources, welfare or capabilities, while the other argues that it requires equal, non-oppressive, non-exploitative and non-dominating forms of relationships. Both arguments are persuasive, but it’s the former that runs away with most of the attention. The latter is therefore a useful reminder that equal relationships count for freedom. Both arguments, however, give the lie to the contention that there’s a very deep and unsolvable conflict between freedom and equality.

More posts in this series are here.


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