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.

What is Democracy? (61): A Euphemism for the Rule of Some Over Others?

How can a system of majority rule be called the rule of the people? There are always winners and losers and the majority rules over the minority. Even democracy is therefore a system of coercion, domination and the separation between rulers and ruled. The majority coerces the minority so that it respects its decisions. The power to set rules that other people can be coerced to obey by threat of penalty is the power to control other people’s lives, and that’s morally questionable. Calling it a democracy doesn’t change the fundamental problem.

Hence, a real democracy seems to require a system of decision by unanimity. In any other system there are always people who do not decide and who do not have autonomy or freedom in the sense of control over their own lives. Is there a difference between being ruled by one person and being ruled by the majority? Not really I guess, just that in the latter case domination is harder to see.

However, unanimity is usually not feasible, and is probably undesirable as well. If anything, democracy promotes plurality. Unanimity, or better apparent and enforced unanimity, is more typical of authoritarianism and is therefore hardly a better route to freedom.

Perhaps we can solve this problem in the following way. In a democracy, there is a majority whose wishes are given priority at a certain moment, but only temporarily. And there is a minority whose wishes are temporarily rejected. The minority’s wishes can always be presented to the general public, even after a decision has been made. These wishes can be promoted and defended, and they can perhaps become a new and future will of the majority. The majority and minority are not fixed groups, and they differ over space as well as over time: for each issue or decision, the majorities and minorities are different. In a well-functioning democracy, no one is part of a permanent and crosscutting majority or minority.

These two attributes of majority rule – possibility to change the majority over time, and separate majority decisions for as many problems as possible – maximize the chances that every individual can fulfill as many of his or her desires as possible. Unanimity rule would seem to offer a 100% chance, but given that unanimity is not realistic, majority rule is the best we can get. It guarantees that as many people as possible can fulfill as many of their desires as possible, because everyone is in the majority for some decisions and even when they’re not they can become so in the future. The minority, the group of persons supposedly living under the rule of the majority, is not a homogenous or unchanging group. It always consists of other persons and this makes the yoke of the minority a bit easier to carry.

However, that is only true in a well-functioning democracy. Asymmetric power relations in non-ideal democracies can increase some groups’ chances of being in the majority. If they have a lot of money or good lobbyists, they can steer decisions towards their wishes. And that can bring back the specter of the rule of men over men. Furthermore, demographics can be such that certain ethnic or linguistic minorities are permanently relegated to the political minority, for instance when the majority ethnic group consistently votes as a block and against the interests of the minority. In that case, democracy will have to provide some form of political autonomy or federal self-rule to the minority.

Another way out of the problem of majority rule is to argue that all rights, including the right of a majority to decide political matters, imply the power to control the lives of others. My right to property gives me the right to exclude others from it; my right to free speech gives me the right to stop others from violating my freedom of speech, etc.

More posts in this series are here.