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Equality First

In response to:

Why Liberals Should Believe in Equality from the February 3, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Ronald Dworkin’s essays in NYR are always delightful and often persuasive. His is a strong and welcome voice on behalf of liberal ideals. But I think he has gone too far [February 3] in arguing that the basic premise of modern liberalism should be “equality.” The alternative is not “neutrality,” as he suggests, but community.

Dworkin himself gives a central place to community, and especially to a conception of active membership. He rightly points out that the interests of community may justify inequality of sacrifice, but that such justification presumes effective membership. No doubt a presumption of moral equality does have a part in the theory of community. But that is not the same as an “egalitarian morality.” It is misleading and even dangerous to associate liberalism with egalitarianism—especially when you don’t really mean it!

To be a member of a moral community is to enjoy the respect of your fellow-members. When we speak of “equal” respect we mean that everyone has a like entitlement to certain baseline privileges. Beyond that there may be considerable inequalities, so long as fundamental entitlements (some of which must vary historically) are recognized.

The alternative to Reaganism and to the Moral Majority is not egalitarianism but a genuine sense of community, with its corollaries of basic respect for the integrity of all persons and mutual responsibility for human well-being. The difference between liberalism and Reaganism with respect to poverty, for example, is that the Reaganites reluctantly accept the necessity of a “safety net,” which is wholly compatible with isolation and disenfranchisement, while the liberal program looks to an ideal of full citizenship, including the economic basis for effective participation.

Philip Selznick

University of California

Berkeley, California

Ronald Dworkin replies:

Professor Selznick argues that the fundamental idea of liberalism is not equality but “community.” This seems wrong because we must understand what genuine equality is—what it means to treat people as equals—in order to define a liberal community. Selznick says that a liberal community may exist even when its members have unequal wealth. But that depends not only on the degree of the inequality, but on the justification available for it. I argued that certain kinds of inequalities of wealth—those that reflect different peoples’ choices of one kind of work or one kind of life over another—are not only consistent with a principle of fundamental equality but demanded by it. But other kinds of inequality of wealth—those that arise because some people are handicapped or not so talented in the ways the market rewards—are not, and a community that does not do its best to repair that kind of inequality is not a liberal community. I do not mean to deny that the concept of community is crucial to liberalism. As Selznick says, I emphasized it in my article. But that concept, in its appropriate form, assumes rather than replaces equality.

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