Hi all -
I'm very pleased to welcome Elizabeth Anderson to PEA Soup for a round of featured philosophizing. Liz is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies, and is an extremely exciting figure in political philosophy and ethics more generally. We're very happy to have her here! Her post is below the fold.
Hello to all PEA Soup visitors! I’m going to tell you about my current project, on the history of egalitarianism from the Levellers to the present.
First, a bit of background and motivation. Many of you might know my interest in egalitarianism from “What is the Point of Equality?”, which criticizes contemporary post-Rawlsian luck egalitarianism and advances a relational view of equality, called democratic equality. On my view, the fundamental egalitarian aim is not to distribute particular non-relational goods equally, but to construct a free society of equals, to design institutions so that the members of society can relate to each other on terms of equality. Distributive justice is instrumental to this aim and partially constitutive of it, but the concerns of equality go well beyond distribution. Fundamentally, egalitarians aim to break down social hierarchy and replace it with institutions in which people interact as equals, or, if that is impossible, at least to limit the scope of hierarchy to its necessary functions. Much of my subsequent work has been devoted to thinking through what institutions can move this agenda forward, in the context of profound relational inequalities that track intersecting social identities of race, gender, class, and other bases of social hierarchy. My methodology is pragmatist, moderately naturalized, non-ideal, and stresses the importance of doing political philosophy in close engagement with research in the social sciences.
The pragmatist tradition in which I work, coming from Dewey and Mill, holds that people can learn about morality not just in thought experiments, but in experiments in living. They can test their moral principles by living in accordance with them and (roughly) seeing whether following these principles solves or manages their moral problems in a satisfactory way. Unsatisfactory outcomes may lead people to modify their principles or revisit their original understandings of the problem at hand, perhaps devising new normative concepts to reframe their predicament in more compelling, empirically adequate, or tractable ways.
This pragmatist idea can itself be empirically tested. We can look to history and see if people really have improved their moral ideas, or learned moral lessons, through experiments in living. The test of improvement is not by the lights of a standard of success external to practice, but internal to practice itself, as I explain here.
The history of egalitarianism is full of experiments in living, often self-consciously understood as such by their participants. So it is rich field for exploring what lessons we can draw about the prospects of different institutional designs for realizing a free community of equals (an ideal that is itself constantly redrawn in light of egalitarian experiments). For example, egalitarians have repeatedly turned to the idea of the commune as a model of egalitarian life: the counterculture communes of the 60s, Israeli kibbutzim, Brook Farm, the Oneida community, and so forth. Most of these have not survived, or have become less egalitarian over time. It is important to understand both why egalitarians have repeatedly turned to this model, and why it fails.
Since this is a huge project, more than one book, I am breaking it down into smaller pieces. Right now I’m working on two egalitarian movements: 17th c. English Levellers, and 19th c. radical abolitionists. I’m reading the arguments they made in the context of their actual practices, to recover the interaction of theory and practice among egalitarian activists.
The Levellers demanded a republican form of government with a nearly universal male franchise, abolition of the House of Lords, equality under the law, and religious toleration—all radical ideas at the time. I encourage you to read their sharp and gripping debates with Cromwell and Ireton at Putney in 1647, recorded verbatim, for a taste of what they were up to. Was this just utopian dreaming, or did they have a basis in experience for thinking that such a mode of government could secure social order on satisfactory terms? Well, it’s worth noting that the Levellers tended to belong to independent sects such as the Baptists and Quakers. These sects devised even more radically egalitarian modes of church governance than what the Levellers demanded for the state. They took Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” literally, and rejected the clergy, insisting that each individual had equal authority to interpret the Bible and to know God. Anyone could stand up and preach! Lay sermons would be followed by discussion and challenges among the members, much like philosophy talks today. Women spoke up; some gathered huge audiences. People learned that they didn’t need a church hierarchy—neither a system of bishops, as in the Anglican and Catholic churches, nor even a representative system of elders, as in the Presbyterian churches—to govern their spiritual lives. They could govern themselves. And if, in spiritual matters, individuals could govern themselves and interact as members with equal authority, why couldn’t they establish a more egalitarian system of governance for the state?
It should therefore not be surprising that the abolitionist movement also originated among the Quakers, and picked up by radical evangelical Protestants in the U.S. and England. Not all anti-slavery activists were egalitarians. But many of the most uncompromising ones—people like Douglass, Tubman, Garrison, and the Grimké sisters—were serious not only about racial equality, but gender and class equality as well. I’m interested in how the assault on slavery by radical abolitionists and by the slaves themselves ultimately prevailed, not only in law but in moral conviction. Three and a half centuries ago most free people accepted slavery as justified; today it is condemned worldwide. From a naturalized perspective on moral epistemology, I am investigating how contention over slavery not just in pure moral argument but in deed—through testimony, petitions, lawsuits, political campaigns, demonstrations, dramas, subversion, and rebellion—can transform moral consciousness through processes that count as moral learning.
One of the most fun things about this project is getting beyond the canon. There is plenty of philosophical interest in pamphlets, petitions, prisoners’ letters, sermons, dramas, satires, lawsuits, campaign speeches, slave narratives, broadsheets, and other writings, where egalitarian writing is often vivid, witty, and engaging. For a sampler, you can try Richard Overton’s “An Arrow against all Tyrants, shot from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever” (1646). Just roll that off your tongue and feel the righteousness behind that brilliant title! And then you can go back to a canonical author such as Locke, see him appropriating and refining arguments made earlier, and realize that he is a more radical figure than he is made out to be in most contemporary interpretations.
I welcome your questions and comments!