Relational Egalitarianism

The kind of relational equality view we find in Rousseau, and which was developed and defended by Elizabeth Anderson (1999), is a particularly promising liberal approach from which to address the way in which dependency can lead to subordination. Indeed, Anderson’s original defense of relational egalitarianism as a superior interpretation of liberal egalitarianism to luck egalitarianism, in particular, is animated by concerns about recognition respect for persons with impairments and illnesses and those who provide material care for others. Roughly, luck egalitarians hold that morally permissible inequalities are those that result from people’s voluntary choices as opposed to their undeserved bad luck; insofar as possible the state should address inequalities among individuals regarding the latter.30 Anderson argues that luck egalitarians fail to show equal concern and respect - the normative grounds of egalitarianism - for persons with impairments and illnesses and caretakers of others (1999). In our work on political liberalism, we have tried to further establish and develop the promise of this view (Watson and Hartley 2018).

A central feature of relational egalitarian views that makes them well suited to address dependency and domination is that questions of distributive justice are secondary to questions of equal recognition, standing, and authority. In other words, relational egalitarians point out that we care about questions of distribution as a means to securing an equal social position for persons in the domains relevant to justice. As such, they aim to offer an account of what citizens owe one another to secure their equal standing as members of a democratic, egalitarian society.

When the social product is viewed narrowly, that is, in terms of discrete, divisible goods, or when justice is thought to be about compensating people for undeserved misfortune, those who need more goods to have the same opportunities or capabilities as others are often viewed as making a special claim or as making costly, excessive demands on others. Relational egalitarians, though, do not think of justice in this way. The social product is not simply the aggregate of discrete and divisible goods, but, rather, the social product’s central good is a relationship of recognition respect among persons as moral equals and as equal citizens. This good is not itself something that is distributable but is a relationship among citizens. Hence, by grounding their view in a substantive commitment to equality, where securing equal standing is necessary for such equality, questions about distribution of the products of social cooperation can be reframed. Rather than asking whether differences per se warrant inequalities of distribution, they are concerned with the social and political conditions that undermine and secure equal standing (including importantly patterns of social domination) for persons as moral equals and equal citizens. Persons’ enjoyment of moral equality and equal citizenship is incompatible with certain social hierarchies. Mere difference among human beings is not itself relevant to moral equality. Further, institutions for the distribution of goods must be designed to eradicate material inequalities and social hierarchies that undermine the equal standing of persons as citizens. Moreover, institutions must secure the bases for recognition respect as a necessary condition for equal standing.51 And, this means that in addition to considerations of distribution, social norms that manifest and instantiate the subordination of some relative to others with respect to moral equality and equal citizenship are a focal point of the relational egalitarian critique. Hence, insofar as dependency can result in unjust subordination, relational egalitarians are committed to redressing this to secure equality and the conditions needed for recognition respect. That is, the central tenets of relational egalitarianism make it well suited for addressing the sorts of problematic dependency that lead to subordination and for demanding that social institutions and practices be such that when dependency is inevitable or consistent with justice, persons in dependency relations are protected from risks of subordination. So, for example, when persons with impairments can avoid dependency relations that give rise to subordination given reasonable accommodations, this view requires it, and when persons with impairments have certain needs that they require the assistance of others to meet given reasonable social arrangements, they should be supported by others in a caretaking framework that respects their status as an equal citizen. Furthermore, those who do the socially necessary work of material caretaking for others should not be made dependent and disadvantaged relative to other citizens as a result. That is inconsistent with their status as equal citizens. Following Rousseau: dependency is an inevitable part of human life. It has led - but need not lead - to social subordination. Living on terms of mutual respect with others requires that we understand our social condition as one of various kinds of dependency and that we only permit those consistent with the status of persons as equals.

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