A personal research history

For almost thirty years now, since the first data about growing income inequality began to emerge, inequality has been a perennial object of study throughout the social sciences. The economists’ analysis of skill-biased technological change has driven a transformation of educational policy and a raft of associated labor policies. Political scientists and scholars of postcolonial studies have tracked the inegalitarian effects throughout the world of globalization and neoliberalism. Historians of the United States have documented the processes by which an ostensibly egalitarian antipoverty program from the 1960s morphed over time into the starkly inegalitarian system of mass incarceration that puts this country in the world-historical record book.

“Where had issues of political equality gone?”

I have been an avid and eager participant in many of these conversations ever since I first began my graduate studies in 1993. Yet at a certain point I became frustrated in two ways. In many of the conversations in which I participated, few people could provide anything other than the vaguest accounts of what the alternative, positive picture was against which the observed inequalities could be judged as failures. This was my first frustration. My second was that, while many research projects tackled “inequality,” few took the time to specify that their focus was almost exclusively on economic inequality. Where had issues of political equality gone, I wondered? Why didn’t conceptualizations of social inequality and equality come into play?

Out of this frustration, I decided to flip the script. I decided that for my own work I would try, once again, to make sense of the concept of equality. Of course, there is a distinguished tradition of work on the subject, embracing titans of political philosophy like John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Jerry Cohen, Jürgen Habermas, and Elizabeth Anderson. But even within that context, the lesser part of the conversation was directed toward political equality, very little of the conversation attended to social equality, and almost none at all scrutinized the connections among moral, political, social, and economic equality.

Insofar as the purpose of democracy is to empower individual citizens and give them sufficient control over their lives to protect themselves against domination, the core ideal of democracy is political equality. As I came to focus in on the question of how to think about equality, I found that attention to the political strand, in particular, would have far-reaching consequences for both political philosophy and the empirical social sciences, introducing many neglected questions to the conversation.

During the 2014–15 academic year, I was lucky to have the chance at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to lead a seminar on “Egalitarianisms.” We asked the following questions:

What exactly is political equality? We have come to think of this ideal as consisting primarily of voting rights and the right to run for elected office. These political rights are, of course, fundamental. The carceral state draws our attention to that point, but voting rights are only one of the instruments available to be directed toward the egalitarian empowerment of a citizenry.

How do political equality, social equality, and economic equality (and the corresponding inequalities) relate to each other? Are they separable or necessarily interdependent? What has been their historical relationship?

How do questions of economics, law, institutions, social structure, culture, psychology, and human development intersect with the empowerment (and disempowerment) of individuals and collectivities? How have these intersections differed depending on time and place? In the current context, how do forms of global governance and democratic deficits relate to projects of empowerment at local and communal levels, and not merely national levels?  How have notions of empowerment differed in different historical and cultural contexts?

Is it possible to articulate a clear definition of equality or should we think in terms of varying languages of egalitarianism? What have been the critiques of political equality? Must egalitarianism be understood in relation to democracy? How should we think about non-democratic egalitarianism?

For me, this research strategy has led to a remarkable project of reconstructing the rudiments of my approach to political philosophy. Let me give you just a small taste by indicating where this line of analysis has taken me in relation to a figure like Rawls.

A research result

Why start an argument about the meaning of justice by asserting that justice must include political equality or democracy? There are two possible answers. Either one thinks that participating in democracy is in itself good for human beings or else one thinks that only by participating in a democracy can human beings secure the elements of justice. The value of democracy may, in other words, be either intrinsic, deriving from what it itself is, or instrumental, deriving from the outcomes that it secures.

For the last two centuries, political philosophers in the West (in contrast, for instance, to scholars working on Chinese traditions of meritocracy) have argued that democracy has an undeniable instrumental value—in securing conditions for the exercise of autonomy—and that it may also have intrinsic value. It may be necessary to the full flourishing of human beings.

“Rawls considered the value of democracy, that is, of political participation, to be purely instrumental.”For John Rawls, for instance, liberal democracy is good because it secures the autonomy that individuals need if they are to choose their own comprehensive conceptions of the good and to be able to select from among possible ways of life that which they believe is best. Rawls generally tried to argue that his liberalism avoided imposing any particular conception of the good on the citizens of a liberal regime, but on this point he was being coy. His theory of justice did rest on the idea that autonomy is in itself good for people and that they ought to be given space to exercise it. In contrast, Rawls considered the value of democracy, that is, of political participation, to be purely instrumental; for him, it provided a way of securing the rights of freedom of thought, expression, and association that make autonomy possible. He objected to the views of philosophers like Jürgen Habermas who argue that democracy is valuable in itself because political participation is necessary to human flourishing. Rawls rejected the idea that “civic humanism is true: that is, the activity in which human beings achieve their fullest realization, their greatest good, is in the activities of political life.”1 See also pp. 5–6, 420.
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Some people, he argues, for instance, a George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, may develop such a conception of the good for themselves, but we ought not to impose that conception of the good on everyone else.

This argument between Rawls and Habermas unfolded on terrain that historians of philosophy identify as the battle between the liberties of the ancients and of the moderns, a contrast anchored by a famous early nineteenth-century essay by Benjamin Constant with roughly that title. The ancients, Constant argued, prioritized their political rights, their right to participate in the government and to take ownership over collective decisions. The moderns, in contrast, he argued at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, had discovered commerce and mostly wanted to be left alone. They wanted to be protected in their property rights and rights to thought, expression, association, and contract so that they could pursue their commercial ventures, tend to their affairs, and get rich. For the moderns, Constant argued, politics had only instrumental value; the intrinsically valuable activity was money-making.

Constant’s argument was influentially amplified by Isaiah Berlin, who renamed the liberties of the ancients “positive liberties”; they involved a positive right, the freedom “to” participate in government. The modern liberties became, in his lexicon, the “negative liberties”; they involved freedom “from” interference, the right not to be bothered. These latter rights are the ones—thanks also to the work of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill—that are understood as making exercise of autonomy possible and providing each individual the chance to develop and implement his or her conception of the good life, with minimal interference from others.

“Rawls’s theory of justice is the argument that the ideal of equal autonomy is a better starting point for a theory of justice.”

These are the rights that Rawls prioritizes in his argument, and his theory of justice rests on this prioritization, despite the formal inclusion of the positive political liberties on his list of the basic rights that must be protected. Because those are understood by Rawls as instrumentally valuable for all, but fundamentally valuable only for some, they in fact take a subordinate place in his argument. Running below the surface of Rawls’s theory of justice is the argument that the ideal of equal autonomy (resting on the negative liberties) is a better starting point for a theory of justice, and the pursuit of justice, than the ideal of political equality (resting on the positive liberties).

The consequences of this prioritization come out most pointedly when Rawls argues, in the revised edition of A Theory of Justice,2Quotes taken from section 9.
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that while historical situations may sometimes justify lesser political liberty, they can never justify “the loss of liberty of conscience and the rights defining the integrity of the person.” He continues: “Under conditions that cannot be changed at present, there may be no way to institute the effective exercise of these freedoms [political liberties]; but if possible the more central ones should be realized first.” Although Rawls never offers an explicit definition of “the more central freedoms,” in his argument these are clearly the rights supporting private, not public autonomy, the rights of the moderns, not of the ancients.

Yet despite what I have just laid out, Rawls believed, and argued, that in his theory of justice he had consistently treated the liberties of the ancients and the moderns as “co-original” and “co-equal.” He writes: “The ancient and the modern liberties are co-original and of equal weight with neither given pride of place over the other. The liberties of both public and private autonomy are given side by side and unranked in the first principle of justice. These liberties are co-original for the further reason that both kinds of liberty are rooted in one or both of the two moral powers, respectively in the capacity for a sense of justice and the capacity for a conception of the good.”3
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But, as we have seen, Rawls in fact came to prioritize the liberties of the moderns over those of the ancients. This is because he believed that the exercise of private autonomy is universally an intrinsic good, while the exercise of public autonomy is of instrumental value to all, but of intrinsic value only to some.

Rawls’s mistake is to imagine that private and public autonomy can be disentangled from one another, an idea that is conceivable only in contexts of great social homogeneity. He envisages a state that can do all the things that states do—make decisions about whether and how to go to war; adjudicate contests when the rights of adversarial parties come into conflict with one another; tax and distribute state revenues in the form of public goods—without tilting the playing field in favor of some conceptions of the good rather than others. But no such state exists—a point being driven home now by controversies over secularism and the veil in France, over marriage equality and the limits on freedom for religious minorities in the United States, over the confounding relationship between gender equality and income inequality.

“Rawls’s mistake is to imagine that private and public autonomy can be disentangled from one another.”

Such a “neutral” state is imaginable only when the cultural universe of those who hold the levers of power in a state is reasonably close to the cultural universe that characterizes the population governed by the state. In such circumstances, public decisions can be read as “minimalist” or “neutral” not because they are or aren’t minimalist, but because they implicitly track the conceptions of the good that predominate within the population. When the distance is greater between the cultural universe, and conceptions of the good, of those who hold the levers of power in a state, and the array of conceptions of good in the general population, public decisions will more frequently be experienced as imposing on private autonomy. In these circumstances, there is no cure for the experience of imposition on private autonomy other than participation in the crafting of public decisions, not merely in order to protect one’s private autonomy, but also in order to be a coauthor of the restraints on that. To be a coauthor in this way is an intrinsic, not an instrumental good.

Public autonomy, in circumstances of cultural heterogeneity, is a necessary extension of private autonomy, not something separate and separable from it. To the degree that private autonomy is intrinsically valuable, so too is public autonomy, if not always then certainly at least in conditions of diversity. If it has sometimes seemed otherwise, that was only because the advocates of private autonomy could rely on a state that tracked their own cultural interests and general conceptions of the good. In conditions, then, when a population is characterized by a high rate of diversity in the conceptions of the good adopted by members of the polity, the ancient and modern liberties are genuinely co-original and co-equal, and a theory of what justice requires must treat the political liberties, or political equality, as indispensable, no less central than freedom of conscience and bodily integrity to human flourishing.

A modest conclusion

I am giving you only the most preliminary sense of how my decision to shift my focus from inequality to equality has opened up remarkable research and analytical prospects for me. My expectation is that the same would be true for those who work in the positive branches of the social sciences. I hope some of you, in addition to my normative colleagues, will also try out the experiment of flipping the script from inequalities to equalities.

For instance, my Harvard colleague Mahzarin Banaji has done profoundly important and valuable work on implicit bias from which I have learned tremendously. But I suspect that there are probably clusters of communities, or perhaps clusters of professions, that deviate from the normal patterns in the expression of implicit bias, in some cases perhaps even in egalitarian directions. Who is finding and studying those communities to understand what the sources of their egalitarianism might be?

Or take Robert Putnam’s story about the decline of social capital between 1970 and 1990 as captured through membership in thirty-two of America’s face-to-face chapter-based associations. In Bowling Alone,4Simon & Schuster, 2001.More info → Putnam fails to make any mention of the fact that the law of association changed profoundly over precisely that period. Over the course of those years, gender and racially exclusive membership rules were banned by state governments and then the Supreme Court for nearly all of the organizations he studies.

A scholar interested in equalities would ask different questions about these facts than Putnam has done. For instance, such a scholar might ask the question of how to scaffold the transition of an association from one approach to membership to another so as to support the equality efforts of the legal realm. There is a clear counterexample to Putnam’s set of associations. College and university membership associations also often went co-ed during the same period and were brought under the wings of their parent universities, reducing what had previously been great autonomy. And this strategy worked. Princeton’s alumni association, for instance, found a way to turn the corner on gender integration that bowling leagues did not. It takes a focus on equality even to see the relevant research question.

I believe that there are very many questions like this that we are missing and that, if we could see them and pursue them, we would in fact also strengthen our capacity to solve the problems arising from the inegalitarian features of contemporary society.


See also pp. 5–6, 420.
Columbia University Press, 2005. Kindle Edition.
More info →
Quotes taken from section 9.
Harvard University Press, 1999.
More info →

Columbia University Press, 2005. Kindle Edition.
More info →
Simon & Schuster, 2001.More info →