The Philosophical Basis of Egalitarianism: Dignity

I have previously suggested that autonomy is what allows each of us to orient our lives according to values we embrace, be these values religious faith, artistic expression, personal pleasure, or anything else. In this article, I shall begin to consider what follows from the fact that each of us is an autonomous individual, dealing with other autonomous individuals. A brief statement of my answer is that each of us, as an autonomous person, has a certain basic dignity. To say a person has dignity seems to involve, not just a description of that person, but a suggestion as to how they ought to be treated. I am not going to offer a thoroughgoing analysis of what this involves, except to suggest that it requires treating that person as, in some substantive sense, an equal.

For one person to treat another as an equal, and for this to be appropriate, seems to require that the two are equal in some respect at least. Clearly, in many respects – shoe size, speed over one hundred metres, number of times they brush their teeth every week – people are typically not equal. To treat someone as an equal does not entail denying such differences, just ignoring them. Where persons are equal, in the way that underwrites their being treated as equals, is in their autonomy. Each of us is an individual who has, or can have, a conception of our own life and of the world, ideals we live for, values we take seriously. To be treated as an equal is to have this fact – the fact that we have these opinions, values, etc., and that we have freely chosen them – taken seriously.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean that each person’s life or choices must be treated as being of equal worth. In one sense, talk of equality is actually misleading here, insofar as it implies that lives or choices can or must be measured against each other. It might seem that the reason you ought to be treated as an equal is down to the values you embrace; more specifically, to be treated as an equal, one must embrace values as worthy as anyone else’s. It would follow that I can only treat as equals persons who have suitably similar values to me. But this is not the case. Any serious approach to dignity and equality should not restrict it in this way; it should keep open the possibility that one can honestly disagree with another and yet do so in a respectful manner, treating them as an equal.

The demands which our dignity places on others can be brought out by considering the following line of thought. Take yourself, with your own interests, needs, desires, conceptions of what is valuable, and so on. Ask yourself how you think you deserve to be treated by others. (Note that this is not quite the same as asking how you would like, ideally, to be treated. I would like a better job in a bigger city, but that doesn’t mean I deserve it.) What you will come up with, I suggest, will be a mixture of procedural and substantive demands. The procedural ones are to do with your voice being listened to in decisions over what you as an individual, and you as part of various groups of people, will do (these groups range from a relationship up to a nation state). The substantive demands are just those which concern, not procedures, but outcomes, for example, a fair wage for your work.

Next, ask yourself what grounds you have for not extending the same treatment to others as you think they ought to extend to you. If you can think of no compelling reason, then it seems you will have good grounds for treating others a certain way, based on their dignity. In short, you have grounds to treat others as equals.

Note that treating others as equals does not entail treating them equally. It is perfectly consistent with punishing criminals, or rewarding those who work harder. But it does entail that there are certain demands which any of us can make on each other, no matter how different our cases might otherwise be. Each of our lives has a specific, non-negotiable value, which not even the most feckless waste, dogmatism or relentless cruelty can erase. In the next article, I shall consider in more detail what these demands are. This will help to connect the discussion thus far to some of the claims traditionally made on behalf of egalitarianism.

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