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Looking for a Range Property

What are the basic features of the cluster of principles that we would associate with humanEdinburgh University Old College Quad quad, after refurbishment. equality? How do we move from the general to the particular to answer the fundamental question: if the presence of a ‘continuous’ equality amongst humans is to be accepted, or even a ‘distinctive’ equality which would raise us to a higher worth than animals, what then is such equality actually based upon?

Having highlighted the issues and emphasised their importance in the first lecture, and then in the second lecture set out the necessary philosophical framework, Professor Waldron tonight embarked on an exploration of the variety of possibilities for the foundation of equality that have been expounded by philosophers and legal theorists over the centuries. Examining each in turn, he analysed their content and potential:

  • Human DNA – thought to be unsatisfactory as a basis, as being only a partial account without its connected purpose;
  • Human feelings – particularly the capacity to feel pain, and to experience affection and loss, with its extension in Christian theology of the capacity to love being implicated in the imago Dei and the inter-relationship of the Trinity;
  • Human reason – not only in its mere existence, but also as enhanced in religious conceptions, from Cicero to the Stoics to John Locke, to enable faith and fellowship with God;
  • Language – the power to speak and to comprehend speech;
  • The capacity to kill – Thomas Hobbes: ‘the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest’, as an account intended to refute inequality, including amongst the sexes, and intended in its realisation to promote a ‘concern for peace’;
  • Powers of moral reason – the oft-cited position of Immanuel Kant, in the common capacity to respond to moral law, thought ‘breathtaking’ and ‘momentous’ by Kant, and above all qualities of nature and art given the human ability to defy the demands of the body or desire;
  • Personal autonomy – as a ‘less severe counterpoint’ to Kant, or even in ‘complementarity’ which for Professor Waldron provides the essence for modern liberalism to Kant; and
  • A sense of justice and of one’s own potential for good (John Rawls) – both personal and moral, but contentious especially amongst those with concern for either disability or animal rights

Having surveyed the field, Professor Waldron arrived at a potential stumbling block which might vitiate all or any of the above: obvious differences of degree in human capacity. If human properties vary in their individual strength or outward expression, how can we ever be considered equal? In response, Professor Waldron centred upon the Rawls’ notion of a ‘range property’ as a potential solution: as long as the human property possesses the capability of transgressing a minimum threshold, the property crystallises in its significance. Once the qualifying tests are satisfied, equality is established, no matter the depth and extent to which the property is then possessed or demonstrated by an individual.

Therefore, the purpose of employing the notion of a ‘range property’ is in Rawls’ words, ‘to give equal justice to those meeting its condition’. The ‘sufficient condition’ he envisaged to entitle an individual to equal justice was ‘the capacity for moral personality’. Therefore, ‘provided the minimum for moral personality is satisfied, a person is owed the guarantees of justice’.


Rawls’ notion of ‘range property’ might not only vault a seemingly insurmountable logical hurdle to establishing continuous equality that is raised in the light of our varying capabilities, it might also provide succour by eliminating any perceived significance in our ‘statal’ differences of gender or race once thresholds are passed; to thus effectively ‘level the playing field’ for egalitarianism.

However, the notion per se in Rawls’ scheme of the existence of any threshold based on qualifying criteria to assess an individual’s entitlement to be considered equal raises also the troubling possibility of their exclusion based on subjective or even arbitrary criteria. Rawls writes ‘once a certain minimum is met…’ Who is to judge whether an individual does indeed possess the ‘minimum capacity for moral personality’ so as to then luxuriate in the equality pool? Can, for example, an extremist theocracy or a totalitarian state justify the withdrawal of equal justice for an individual on the basis that their opposition to imposed norms renders them morally insufficient? What consequences does failure bring?

Your views are invited on the solidity of adopting ‘range properties’ as a foundational concept, or indeed on any other issue raised in the first three lectures. Now that we are at the halfway stage, what are your overall impressions thus far? Do you have the feeling that we are still on the road towards a momentous focal point? Or do you feel that aspects of a powerful and resonating thesis are already with us?

Simply click on the small ‘Comment’ link immediately below to have your say, or to read and respond to other contributions.

Find the details of next week’s lectures at Gifford Lectures 2015.





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