I am fascinated with the doctrine of basic equality, according to which all human beings are equal in some sense that is important for ethics, politics and the law. As I see it, there are four related riddles surrounding this doctrine:
- Meaning: What do we mean when we say that human beings are equal?
- Justification: In virtue of what are human beings equals? What makes basic equality true?
- Scope: Are all human beings equal? Are only humans beings equal?
- Implications: What does basic equality imply for ethics, politics and the law?
These are the questions I take up in my research. In my dissertation, A defense of Basic Equality (University of Chicago, June 2018), I argue that basic equality is grounded in the moral obligation to respect human beings. I claim that when understood in this way, basic equality can be reconciled with the significant differences we observe among humans, and has a better chance of answering some traditional and new skeptical concerns.
I currently have two papers under review in leading philosophy journals, regarding the justification of basic equality (titles are not mentioned to respect the integrity of the blind-review process):
- In one paper, I defend basic equality against the common charge that humans are too different to be equal. I argue that this skeptical argument against basic equality works only if we assume that basic equality is an instance of the Aristotelian principle that “equal cases should be treated and unequal cases unequally.” Using several novel thought-experiments, I claim that basic equality cannot be understood as an instance of this broader principle, and so that the common objection to basic equality rests on a mistake.
- In another paper, I tackle the question of whether there is any significant personal attribute that all human beings have equally. Most existing defenses of basic equality attempt to identify some valuable individual characteristic—be it rationality, autonomy or something else—that all humans have to an equal degree. My own preferred defense of basic equality is not of this kind, but in this paper I defend a version of it: I argue that all cognitively able, adult human beings have the valuable property of “moral agency” (defined as the capacity to perform actions for which one is morally responsible) to an equal degree. I discuss the implication of this claim for the defense of basic equality.
Here are some other papers I currently work on (and hope to complete in the near future.
Evil and Equality: This is a paper about the scope of basic equality. I attempt to answer a question I often get when I tell people what I work on: “So you want to say that I am equal to Hitler?” In this paper, I assess the concern this question expresses, and argue that it is not a concern about basic equality, but about another moral principle, which I dub “Kant’s Axiological Principle,” according to which the world is good to the extent that there is a strong positive correlation between virtue and well-being. I show how this principle is consistent with basic equality.
The Moral Status of Individuals in Permanent Vegetative States: This is also a paper about the scope of basic equality. Many philosophers believe such individuals in Permanent Vegetative States (PVS), unlike individuals in temporary coma, have no significant moral status. I argue that there is no morally relevant difference between individuals in PVS and individuals in temporary coma, and that if the latter have a significant moral status, so do the former.
The Best Argument for Cosmopolitan Justice? This paper is about the normative implications of basic equality. According to cosmopolitanism, distributive justice does not, in principle, recognize national boundaries. Charles Beitz and other philosophers argue that basic equality implies cosmopolitanism, and that basic equality is in fact the best argument for cosmopolitan justice. In this paper I claim that despite appearances to the contrary, basic equality does not have a cosmopolitan implication. I argue that unless one believes that basic equality requires that we establish a global government (which, typically, philosophers deny) one should understand basic equality to be consistent with statist conceptions justice.
Feel free to email me if you’re interested in seeing drafts or discussing any of the above!