Equality and Tradition: Questions of Value in Moral and Political Theory by Samuel Scheffler

| August 2011
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Equality and Tradition: Questions of Value in Moral and Political Theory, Samuel Scheffler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 352 pp., $49.95 cloth.

Samuel Scheffler’s focus throughout his philosophical career has been on tensions between the powerful reasons for action one has that are generated by one’s own projects, ambitions, and relationships—the core of a flourishing life—and the no less powerful reasons one has that are generated by others’ projects, ambitions, and relationships. These are tensions that, in different ways, have also been a key theme in the work of Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams, two philosophers whose influence on Scheffler is clear. As his latest collection of essays demonstrates, however, Scheffler’s own thinking on the subject is both distinctive and distinctively valuable.

One notable feature of Scheffler’s treatment of these tensions is his vision of the political as the locus of their resolution. This is most explicitly articulated in the collection’s fourth essay, “The Division of Moral Labor: Egalitarian Liberalism as Moral Pluralism,” in which Scheffler argues that egalitarian liberalism should be understood as “an acknowledgment of, and a strategy for accommodating, the diversity of our values” (p. 127). The idea is to assign the task of realizing values of justice and equality—values associated with the second set of reasons noted above—to society’s basic structure; that is, the way its major institutions distribute benefits and burdens. When the basic structure is doing its job properly, it secures what Rawls calls “background justice,” which enables individuals to face each other secure in the knowledge that the system of social cooperation that each upholds treats them all fairly. This leaves individuals free “to lead their lives in such a way as to honor the values appropriate to small-scale interpersonal relationships” (p. 113) without thereby compromising their commitment to justice and equality.

As Scheffler goes on to explain in “Cosmopolitanism, Justice, and Institutions”—an essay that will be of particular interest to readers of Ethics & International Affairs—the need for this division of labor between institutions and individuals arises as a result of a “modern predicament” (p. 170): the insufficiency of compliance with any feasible rules of personal conduct alone to guarantee, against the complex institutional background of a modern society, the fairness of the system of cooperation in which we are participants. Rawls’s focus on the basic structure, which was novel when he wrote A Theory of Justice, can be viewed in part as a response to that modern predicament.

This has implications for contemporary debates about global justice. One important group of contributors to these debates are the cosmopolitans who take Rawls to have been mistaken, in view of the existence of global institutions and cooperative enterprises, to restrict the application of his two principles of justice to the basic structure of the state. These cosmopolitans, Scheffler argues, must do more than point to the existence of global institutions and enterprises in order to show that Rawls’s principles (or some global analogue) ought to be applied globally. They must show that global institutions and enterprises give rise to a similar predicament, and moreover that the problem posed by this predicament “could not be solved either by individual agents or by the basic structure of individual societies even if both complied fully with the respective norms that apply to them” (p. 170). It is not obvious that cosmopolitans can show this.

As Scheffler goes on to suggest, however, neither is it obvious that the new social and institutional forms and practices that have arisen in the current era of globalization do not give rise to predicaments that necessitate “changes in our repertoire of moral principles” (p. 172). Rawls’s arguments for the basic structure as the primary subject of justice, then, may give us reason to think that the scope of application of the two principles of justice should be restricted. But at the same time they prepare us for the possibility that new moral principles—even principles of distributive justice—may be necessary as a response to increased global integration. Scheffler’s discussion here, as throughout Equality and Tradition, is characteristically balanced and insightful and deserves to be widely read.

Other essays in the collection—including “Is the Basic Structure Basic?,” Scheffler’s excellent discussion of G. A. Cohen’s “incentives” critique of Rawls—further articulate Scheffler’s idea of the political as the locus for the resolution of the tensions that arise between the two sets of reasons described above. But Scheffler devotes space to other topics, too, and these help to fill in other details of his vision of morality and the just society. In the first part of the volume, for example, he concentrates on individual—as opposed to institutional—values and norms, developing (in “Valuing”) an account of the phenomenon of valuing, and then drawing on this (in “Morality and Reasonable Partiality”) to argue for an account of morality that not only accommodates but gives moral force to reasons deriving from valued personal projects and relationships. Meanwhile, in some of the final essays (particularly “What is Egalitarianism?,” “Choice, Circumstance, and the Value of Equality,” and “The Good of Toleration”), he explores neglected questions concerning not only the justice but the good of a just society. For Scheffler, such values as equality and toleration have a grip on us not merely because they give us a fair framework within which people can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good but also because they can unite us: when we relate to each other as equals, or when we live together under a regime of toleration, we may come to experience the rewards of fraternity. Thus, egalitarian liberalism may have more to offer than even its advocates sometimes suppose.

As I hope this short summary makes clear, Scheffler’s vision is an attractive one, and his arguments for it are compelling. That alone makes Equality and Tradition an important contribution to contemporary political philosophy, even though many of the essays have been published elsewhere. It is a bonus that they are also a pleasure to read. There are philosophers whose writing, despite its acuity and depth, gives the impression that the everyday emotions and experiences of most of their fellow humans are alien to them. Scheffler’s writing is different: here, acuity and depth are combined with a sure sense of the nature and variety of our projects, our concerns, and our motivations. To judge by Equality and Tradition, Scheffler is not only a first-rate philosopher but also a wise one.


Thomas Porter is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Manchester.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 25.3

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