Summary of ‘The Idea of Equality’ by Bernard Williams



This webpage summarizes parts 1 and 2 of ‘The Idea of Equality.’ Part 3 has been subject to most attention, but the earlier parts strike me as just as interesting.


Two equality claims

Williams begins by distinguishing two claims about equality:


(Factual claim) Men are equal.

(Normative claim) Men should be treated as equal.


‘Men’ here is intended to include women, but not people with severe psychological disorders.


A dilemma

Williams considers a dilemma for someone who makes either the factual or the normative claim. The dilemma is that either the claim is too strong or too weak, depending on how it is interpreted. I shall focus on the factual claim to illustrate this dilemma.


(A too weak interpretation) All men are men. This is true but trivial. It is not politically significant.

(A too strong interpretation) All men are equal in their capacities. This would be politically significant if true, but it is obviously false.


Williams rejects the dilemma because he thinks that the weak interpretation – that to say ‘men are equal’ is to say all men are men – is not too weak, because it is politically significant.


Williams’ argument for the political significance of saying, ‘All men are men.’

According to Williams, saying all men are men is a way of drawing attention to certain important universal features of human beings:

“That all men are human is, if a tautology, a useful one, serving as a reminder that those who belong anatomically to the species homo sapiens, and can speak a language, use tools, live in societies, can interbreed despite racial differences, etc., are also alike in certain other respects more likely to be forgotten. These respects are notably the capacity to feel pain, both from immediate physical causes and from various situations represented in perception and in thought; and the capacity to feel affection for others, and the consequences of this, connected with the frustration of this affection, loss of its objects, etc.”


Williams denies that this is politically trivial because there are social arrangements which neglect that some groups of men have these qualities, i.e. they treat these groups as if they did not have these qualities.


An objection Williams considers

Williams considers an objection that is quite strange unless one is familiar with the doctrine that one cannot derive a claim about what one should do from only a claim about what is the case. According to this doctrine, even if it is the case that all men have the features Williams draws attention to, it does not follow that all men should be treated as equal.


The objection Williams considers is that there could be a society in which a group of people are acknowledged by official bodies to have the universal features that Williams draws attention to yet are still treated as if they do not have these features, in the belief that it is morally permissible or morally required to treat them in this way. For example, the official bodies may say that it is morally required of them to treat black people as if they do not have these features.


Williams’ response to the objection

Williams’ response is that a society whose official institutions operated in this way would be operating on an arbitrary principle and an arbitrary principle is not a moral principle. He thinks that those who recommend prejudiced behaviour generally acknowledge this point by trying to establish that there is a group that lacks some of the features that Williams regards as universal. (I think Williams needs to consider people who say, ‘Even if the practices we encourage do not treat all groups as having these universal features, it is our tradition to engage in such practices and you should respect that, as we respect your traditions when in your territory.’  Such a response does not involve trying to establish that those discriminated against lack the universal features.)


Williams on the too strong interpretation

Williams agrees that it is too strong to claim that men are equal in their capacities. Some can run faster than others, some have greater numerical skills, and so on.


What about the claim that, even if men vary in some capacities, they have equal capacity to be moral – equal capacity to recognize what is right and good and to live their lives in accordance with this recognition?


Williams agrees with the following view: there are capacities that are not in themselves moral, because they can be used for bad as well as good, but they are of much value for being moral – ability to appreciate the point of view of others, impulse control, and more; since these capacities vary between people and are of much value for being moral, it is mistaken to think that people have equal capacity to be moral.


An objection to this view

Williams then considers an objection to this view:

there is a powerful strain of thought that centres on a feeling of ultimate and outrageous absurdity in the idea that the achievement of the highest kind of moral worth should depend on natural capacities, unequally and fortuitously distributed as they are…”


Williams focuses on Kant as providing the most important philosophical formulation of this way of thinking. Kant, on Williams’ reading, says that our moral capacity has nothing to do with capacities that vary between men.


Williams’ response:

If whether a person is responsible for a particular act depends on certain non-moral capacities that they possess, capacities that vary between people, then it is false that moral capacity is independent from these non-moral capacities.

Whether a person is responsible for a particular act depends on certain non-moral capacities that they possess, capacities that vary between people.


It is false that moral capacity is independent from certain non-moral capacities, capacities that vary between people.


Williams on each person should be treated as an end in themselves

On the basis of a conception of moral capacity as independent of variable natural capacities, Kant argues that each person should be treated as an end in themselves. Williams poses the question of whether we can make sense of this claim without relying on Kant’s outlook on moral capacity.


Williams focuses on the claim that each person should be treated with respect, as another way of putting the Kantian claim and as an interpretation of the normative claim that men should be treated as equal. He proposes an interpretation of what it is to treat each person with respect:


Respecting another person, on Williams’ conception, involves:

(i)            Not letting our fundamental attitudes towards them be dictated by their technical success or social position;

(ii)          Trying to understand them from their human point of view;

(iii)         Not suppressing or distorting their consciousness of what they are doing.


Understanding them from their human point of view

Williams introduces the notion of understanding a person from their human point of view through the example of a failed inventor.


From the perspective of the history of inventions, he does not figure or he figures only as a failed inventor.

But from the human point of view, he is someone who wanted to be a successful inventor, who believed he could be, who had certain feelings upon not succeeding, etc.


Williams develops an interpretation of what it is to respect each person, using concepts formed through reflecting on this example:

“[Respect] enjoins us not to let our fundamental attitudes to men be dictated by the criteria of technical success or social position, and not to take them at the value carried by these titles and by the structures in which these titles place them. This does not mean, of course, that the fundamental view that should be taken of men is in the case of every man the same: on the contrary. But it does mean that each man is owed the effort of understanding…”


The failed inventor example provides us with components (i) and (ii) of Williams’ notion of respect. Component (iii) comes from reflecting on a hierarchical society.


A hierarchical society

Williams imagines a hierarchical society in which each man is content with their station within it. (He does not clarify a hierarchical society, but he seems to have in mind something like a caste system and not, say, a society with merit-based job hierarchies.) If respect consists in just (i) and (ii), then Williams thinks that a hierarchical society could potentially be a respectful one.


Williams, however, thinks that there is more to respect than considering each individual from their human point of view.

For it is precisely a mark of extreme exploitation or degradation that those who suffer it do not see themselves differently from the way they are seen by the exploiters; either they do not see themselves as anything at all, or they acquiesce passively in the role for which they have been cast. Here we evidently need something more than the precept that one should respect and try to understand another man’s consciousness of his own activities; it is also that one may not suppress or destroy that consciousness.”


Williams says that hierarchical societies depend for their stability on people having a mistaken conception of hierarchy as a necessity and a distorted conception of what they are doing within this society as a consequence. Owing to component (iii), an attitude of respect, or treating a person as an end in themselves, is against this kind of society in the long-term.



Williams, B. 1973. The idea of equality. In Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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