The Basis of Political Equality

According to Bernard Williams, political equality can be addressed in two aspects, in terms of factuality and in terms of principles. The statement of fact is whether human beings are in fact equal, regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, the statement of principles states that people should be treated equally.

It is essential to distinguish between the statements even though they are closely related. When we say all humans are equal, the attempt to state this fact generally guides the principles we ought to espouse. When I believe people are equal, it makes me do particular things and not others. On the other hand, we pick policies because there are certain facts about humans that we have to accommodate.

Too absurd or too trivial?

When the statements are distinguished, one can find weaknesses in both questions, as they could be either too absurd or too trivial.

In terms of factuality, it is too absurd to say that human beings are equal in every way because every human is unique. For example, I might have different mental capacities than my friend. I might be good at a certain skill, and he or she is not. Thus, this claim is false.

A weaker approach to this question would be that human beings are equal insofar as they are humans. However, this is trivial because it does not offer any interpretation or reasons why we are indeed equal. This needs to be strengthened by specifying what it is that makes us human, as in what characteristics do we share.

In terms of principles, the same issue is also present. It cannot be said that all human beings should be treated equally in all cirumstances because it is too absurd. In some cases, people need more help or consideration than other people because not everyone has the same opportunities.

On the other hand, a weaker claim would advocate treating people on a case-by-case basis. Its weakness is evident because there is no particular standard to decide what case-by-case treatments are just or not. Sometimes helping unprivileged people could completely eliminate helping the privileged, which means there’s no equality.

With the issues concerning the notion of equality considered, the statements can be advanced to make them less absurd or trivial.

Common Humanity

There are three basic criteria under the name common humanity to strengthen the factual statement and make it less trivial.

Capacity to Feel Pain

Humans have the capacity to feel pain, both mentally and physically. Although someone may not be in pain right now, it is possible for him or her to feel pain. It means that he or she has experienced pain in the past and he or she can feel it in the future too.

Humans generally don’t want to feel pain, so it must be avoided. There are a lot of things that we could do that could cause pain; in fact, a person’s policies, deeds, and actions need to respect the possibility that we can get hurt.

The fact that humans have the capacity for pain and mental anguish already tells you what you can and cannot do. You cannot do anything to them that causes pain because you know it means going against their wishes and you wouldn’t want anyone to cause you pain. We’re all equal because we all feel pain, and we have that in common.

Capacity For Affection

Humans have the capacity for affection, may it be loss or despair. We don’t only seek pleasure and avoid pain, we grow fond of other people and things. You love your parents, friends, spouse, and children. These are affections that you don’t want anyone to disrupt in your life, thus you know that disrupting them may inflict pain on others. This should guide you in how to treat others.

When humans love things, they want them to stay in their life. If they were taken away from them, they would feel a certain emptiness. When you disrupt or violate affectionate relationships, you know you’re doing something wrong because you’re disrespecting this factual equality and you’re not instilling principles that would contribute to a just society where people are treated equally. In fact, you’re ignoring that people are equal as you.

Desire For Respect

Humans have the desire to be respected. People want others to recognize that they have a perspective, a view on the world. They want their hopes, dreams, and things to be recognized by others. They want to have the freedom to be and the space to communicate.

No one chooses to be the kind of thing that could feel pain, you’re just that kind of being. In a sense, this indicates a certain kind of passivity or vulnerability. We’re open to pain and being affected emotionally, socially, and economically. Our openness to be harmed is not something that is up to us to choose and we’re all equally at the risk of getting our hearts shattered. We feel pain in the same way. However, there’s room for choice when it comes to lifestyles. We choose what professions, which skills to nurture, and kind of lives we want to live.

There’s a notion of respect for our capacity to have a way of life. Social arrangements restrict people from reaching their self-reflective potential. The hierarchal order makes it even more difficult for the people who occupy lesser roles in society to be conscious of their roles. The degree to which a person has the capacity to reflect determines his or her rank in the social status hierarchy.

Everyone Deserves an Opportunity

After discussing how equality concerns our common humanity and common self-reflection potential, consider opportunities in a society. The person deserves an opportunity to do something, even if he or she fails. If someone has the capacity to have a way of life, therefore, they have the capacity to commit and to think about not just about now, but also about the long term. They have a capacity to actualize ambitions, regardless whether they succeed or not.

Although people aren’t equal, they would be equal if we realize that everyone has the potential to be something, whether they choose to use it or not. It doesn’t mean that everything should be available to everyone, but at least ensure that people aren’t just thinking about how can they make a living or where should they sleep. Someone who lacks the means to access food doesn’t choose to live a way of eating to survive. He doesn’t commit to this kind of lifestyle, but rather, it’s something he or she has to do.

The difference between commitment and necessity is that one is a choice and other is a need. We don’t choose to commit to drinking water because it’s a survival need; whereas, commitment is something we choose. If someone’s life is cut down to the inability to have commitments and not having the option to choose the kind of life they want to live because all they need to do is find means to survive, then we’re completely disregarding the fact that they have the capacity to have a way of life.

It would be problematic to say that anyone can do anything or everyone has a purpose. Regardless of all circumstances, everyone should have opportunities. Their capacity to choose a way of life, and the capacity to commit should respected and recognized.

7 replies on “The Basis of Political Equality”

True equality is an impossibility. I agree. If for no other reason than access to resources. There’s just not enough stuff to go around.

Equality within context seems more doable. Take a group of people, draw a circle around them (a resource constrained circle) and ensure that all within the circle have the opportunity to access and leverage those resources available to that circle.

The trick then, becomes in how you draw your circles. And who draws the circles. I would posit that it is the unbalanced drawing of circles that creates this sense of inequality.

And then, I would add, as the circles become wider, more inclusive, the aspects of what is shared equally must shrink. Draw a circle around the Earth and say that everyone in that circumference should have access to high-speed internet, free, fast transportation, superior nutrition and quality accommodations — would be an impossibility — today.

But what about in 1000 years? (If we survive that long.)

Perhaps equality is circles ever expanding, in time and with progress, until all people enjoy life within the same circle of opportunity and access to resources.

I too think about “equality” and what it means. Thanks for your thoughtful post.


[…] 💻 We Americans have a core belief that people are equal, even though we know we’re really not. Carla Akil does a nice job clarifying in what ways we are actually equal, and how this is the foundation of our national core belief. Read The Basis of Political Equality […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s