Speaking of Equality

Speaking of Equality: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Force of `Equality' in Moral and Legal Discourse

Peter Westen
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 342
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  • Book Info
    Speaking of Equality
    Book Description:

    Aristotle noted that "equality" is the plea not of those who are satisfied but of those who seek change, and the word has long been invoked in the name of social reform. It retains its force because arguments for equality put arguments for inequality on the defensive. But why is "equality" laudatory and "inequality" pejorative? In this first book-length analysis of the rhetorical force of equality arguments, Peter Westen argues that they derive their persuasiveness largely from the kind of word that "equality" is, rather than from the values it incorporates.

    By focusing on ordinary language and using commonplace examples from law and morals, Westen argues that equality is a single concept that lends itself to a multiplicity of conceptions by virtue of its capacity to incorporate diverse standards of comparison by reference. Equality arguments draw rhetorical force in part from their tendency to mask the standards of comparison on which they are based, and in so doing to confound fact with value, premises with conclusions, and uncontested with contested norms.

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6148-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    One day, while on vacation in Guatemala, I go to acampesinomarket to buy food for dinner. I ask a vendor for one pound of black beans. He puts a brass weight marked “one pound” in one pan of a hand-held balance and pours beans into the other pan until the two come into balance. “Bueno,” he says, “ya son iquales” (“Good, now they’re equal”).

    What does the vendor mean when he says that the two pans of the scale are “equal”? Does he mean that they are absolutely identical in weight? Does he mean that they are highly...

  5. Part One: The Ordinary Meaning of ʹEqualityʹ
    • [Part One: Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      The words ‘equality’, ‘equal’, and ‘equally’ have meanings which range over various settings. Sometimes they signify descriptive relationships, e.g., “Carla and Amy are equal to one another in height.” Sometimes they signify prescriptive relationships, e.g., “All human beings are equal in the sight of God.” Sometimes they straddle descriptive and prescriptive relationships, as in complaints by children that their parents have not “treated” them “equally.”

      What happens to ‘equality’ and its cognates as they range from one setting to another? Is ‘equality’ a word like ‘square’, which has many different meanings depending upon whether one is talking about a Euclidean...

      (pp. 11-41)

      Statements of equality seem simple, even self-evident, in the area of weights and measures. Perhaps by analyzing how ‘equality’ works in such seemingly self-evident statements, we will learn something about how it functions in the more perplexing and elusive language of law and morals. Thus imagine the following:

      I decide to make a pound cake. The recipe calls for a pound each of flour, butter, and sugar. I take a spring-mounted digital scale from the cupboard. The scale measures weight in increments of ounces by displaying the number of ounces that an object weighs, to the nearest full ounce. The...

      (pp. 42-58)

      Equality is “an easily understood concept in mathematics,” Thomas Sowell has observed, and yet “a bottomless pit of complexities anywhere else.”¹

      Sowell is surely correct about the simplicity of equality in mathematics. Although we may occasionally despair of understanding particular equations in mathematics, we have no trouble understanding theconceptof equality that underlies them. This concept of equality is so obvious, so pellucid, that it is taken for granted in the most elementary books of arithmetic.² Sowell is right, too, when he goes on to say that ‘equality’ is a word that causes both “confus[ion]” and “controversy” outside mathematics,...

      (pp. 59-92)

      Equality is more than a descriptive and mathematical concept. It is also a subject of moral and political contention. “Few issues,” it has been said, “have sparked more controversy or held more sway over the course of history than has equality. Ships have been launched, lives given, governments toppled—all in the name of this one ideal.”²

      These controversies, as Aristotle observed,³ involve a different kind of equality than that which we have studied thus far; for people do not generally disagree about whether X and Y are equal in weight, or whether 3 + 3 = 6. People disagree...

      (pp. 93-118)

      Parents know from personal experience what Piaget would teach them, that young children are quick to develop a moral sense of equality.¹ Given our conclusions thus far, analyzing what it means to treat children equally should be relatively straightforward. ‘Equal treatment’, after all, consists of only two terms—‘equal’ and ‘treatment’. We have already analyzed ‘equality’ and its cognates in the three basic contexts in which they occur: descriptions, mathematical relationships, and prescriptions. It would seem that our only remaining task is to analyze the meaning of ‘treatment’ in light of our previous understanding of ‘equal’.

      Unfortunately, the persistent ambiguities...

      (pp. 119-128)

      We began this portion of our inquiry by posing two questions: (1) What, if anything, is the generic meaning of ‘equality’ that underlies the many and varied usages of ‘equality’? (2) Why is equality so much more elusive, and controverted, in moral discourse than in physical science? If our analysis has been sound, we should now be in a position to propose answers.

      Some observers react to the apparent multifariousness of ‘equality’ by concluding that it has no generic meaning. In his analysis inEqualities, Douglas Rae argues that, rather than having a “single” and “universal” meaning, “the notion of...

  6. Part Two: Some More Equal than Others
    • [Part Two: Introduction]
      (pp. 129-130)

      George Orwell’sAnimal Farmis a fable of farm animals who begin by creating a democracy in which “[a]ll animals are equal” and end by submitting to a dictatorship of pigs in which “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”¹

      The irony ofAnimal Farmworks on several levels. Part of it is that, as heirs of the French and American Revolutions, we regard “equality” and political oligarchy as mutually inconsistent. Yet that is not its essential irony, nor one which would have impressed Aristotle and his contemporaries, who considered it plausible to discuss “aristocracy”...

      (pp. 131-145)

      The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the source of most of the personal rights that people of the United States possess vis-à-vis state governments. Fourteenth Amendment rights can be classified in various ways, including by reference to whether they are noncomparative or comparative in nature. To say that A has a “noncomparative right” means (as we have seen)¹ that his entitlements can be determined without reference to the relative status of others. To say that A has a “comparative right” means that his entitlements are a function of his relations to other persons. For example, the right of...

      (pp. 146-162)

      In a well-known passage inFreedom and Reason, R. M. Hare asks us to imagine three people who are dividing a bar of chocolate among themselves:

      Suppose that three people are dividing a bar of chocolate between them, and suppose that they all have an equal liking for chocolate. And let us suppose that no other considerations such as age, sex, ownership of the chocolate, etc., are thought to be relevant. It seems to us obvious that the just way to divide the chocolate is equally. And the principle of universalizability gives us the logic of this conclusion. For if...

      (pp. 163-180)

      Along with per-capita distributions and antidiscrimination rights, “equality of opportunity” is commonly said to possess special egalitarian status, particularly within the context of liberal democracies.¹ Yet its claim to being “more equal” than other equalities differs from those discussed in Chapters 6 and 7. Claims made on behalf of antidiscrimination rights and per-capita distributions are essentiallyconceptual, for the relationships of identity that such rights and distributions create are asserted by their proponents to be the only true equalities, the only relationships with legitimate claims to the language of equality. In contrast, the claims asserted on behalf of equal opportunity...

  7. Part Three: Precepts of Equality
    • [Part Three: Introduction]
      (pp. 181-184)

      ‘Equality’, as we have seen, has two meanings—one general, the other specific. Generally, ‘equality’ refers to the relationship which obtains among persons or things which have been measured and found to be identical by reference to such standards of comparison as are deemed relevant to the inquiry at hand. Specifically, ‘equality’ refers to the relationship of identity which obtains among persons or things by reference to a particular standard of comparison, which the speaker asserts to be relevant under the circumstances. The former is the concept of equality, the latter a conception of equality.

      In addition, ‘equality’ is sometimes...

      (pp. 185-229)

      Aristotle, building on prior work by Plato, said three things about equality that have influenced Western thought ever since:

      (1) It is just to treat people who are equal equally.

      (2) It is also just to treat people who areunequal unequally.

      (3) The foregoing propositions are self-evident, being “universally accepted even without the support of argument.”¹

      Ironically, what Aristotle regarded as self-evident, others consider to be not merely false butpatentlyfalse. To treat equals equally, they say, can be grossly unjust. Consider those who are equal before the law. “If a ruler were to boil his subjects in...

      (pp. 230-254)

      The so-called presumption of equality¹ can be expressed in various ways. Some speak of an “onus probandi,” or burden of proof, on those who wish to treat people unequally; others, of a “presumption against” treating people differently until grounds for distinction have been shown; still others, of a “prima facie” rule in favor of equality.² Essentially the various formulations come to the same thing, namely, that people ought to be treated equally until reasons are shown for treating them unequally. As Isaiah Berlin expresses it:

      The assumption is that equality needs no reasons, only inequality does so; that uniformity, regularity,...

  8. Part Four: The Rhetoric of Equality
    • [Part Four: Introduction]
      (pp. 255-256)

      Douglas Rae opens his bookEqualitiesby posing two fundamental questions. The first, to which he ultimately devotes his entire attention, concerns the meaning of ‘equality’. As he puts it, “What, when it is brought [from theory to practice], does equality come to mean?” “Is equality the name of one coherent program or is it the name of a system of mutually antagonistic claims upon society and government?” He responds to that question by concluding that equality is a single name for “many distinct notions,” some of which are “mutually exclusive,” “antagonistic,” and “incompatible.”¹

      Rae’s second question concerns equality’s rhetorical...

      (pp. 257-284)

      Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.² The test of a rhetorical device, it is said, is its ability “to produce change in the world.”³ By that measure, “equality” has always enjoyed rhetorical power, because it “has long been among the most potent of human ideals.”⁴ Aristotle, who first expounded the nature of rhetoric, noted that equality is the plea, not of the strong, who are satisfied with things as they are, but of those who are seeking change.⁵ Equality is a “politically aggressive idea.”⁶ It is a “protest ideal,”⁷ a “rallying cry,”⁸ which possesses “built-in revolutionary force.”⁹ As “a weapon...

    (pp. 285-288)

    This volume, by a conservative estimate, is one of 30 to 40 books about equality that can be expected to be published in English this year. It follows the publication of 46 books on equality in 1988, 65 in 1987, 50 in 1986, and 370 during the decade 1978–87. It will, if added to the card catalog of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, join what are said to be 326 entries under the subject heading “equality.”¹

    To make matters worse, there is a sense in which this book says nothing of interest about equality, for it says...

    (pp. 289-310)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 311-318)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-320)