Anne Phillips (London School of Economics): Should we abandon talk of moral equality?

Mar 9, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
Corwin Hall, Room 127
Open to Princeton University ID Holders


Event Description

Political Philosophy Colloquium 

ABSTRACT: One of the seeming paradoxes of the last four centuries of equality talk is that so many of the proclamations about ‘our’ natural equality coexisted with an extraordinary capacity to set aside –in many cases not even notice - the half of humanity who are female, the millions who were enslaved, the hundreds of millions who were subjected to colonial rule. I argue that this is not so much a paradox as a reflection of property-based justifications for equality. When supposed facts about our shared human nature become the basis for equality claims, this simultaneously creates alibis for deeming all too many people natural inferiors. The main argument of the paper is that contemporary accounts of equality remain too much within that original mould, drawing us into a logic of justification that is still bound to the exclusionary practices of the past; an account that puts us on the defensive as regards our status as equals, and leaves open the possibility that our claims to this status might fail. 

When pursued, more specifically, in the language of moral equality, contemporary accounts encourage a potentially complacent stages account of the progress of equality that misrepresents the first stage of equality – the ‘moral’ stage – as almost complete. The implied distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘material’ both overstates the current acceptance of ‘basic’ equality, and understates the dependence of the status of equal on the reduction of material inequalities. In the process, it makes the wrongness of inequality overly cerebral. The language of moral equality additionally encourages a slippage into precisely the kind of moral differentiation that an affirmation of our moral equality is supposed to reject. Talk of ‘moral worth’ or ‘moral status’ almost inevitably opens up the possibility that some people have greater moral worth than others, and attaching the qualifier ‘equal’ to these phrases merely begs the question ‘why?’ So long as we continue to engage with equality as if it were a matter of facts or properties about human beings, something that requires justification by reference to something else, then claims about us all being equal will remain implausible matters of dispute. This will continue to be the case even when the properties are drawn in a broad brush fashion that supposedly includes us all. 

This not what equality is or should be. Equality is about what we do, not what we are. It is what we make happen when we commit to and claim equality, something we bring into existence, not something we find out.

Anne Phillips is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics, where she was previously the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science. She also served for a number of years as Director of LSE Gender Institute. Her first major work was on colonial policy in British West Africa but most of her writing since then has been in the field of political theory. Her work is informed by feminism, and engages with a range of issues relating to inequality. Major publications include The Politics of Presence (1995), Which Equalities Matter? (1999), Multiculturalism without Culture (2007), and The Politics of the Human (2015). Her latest book is Unconditional Equals, which was published by Princeton University Press in 2021. She was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2003, and was awarded the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize for a Lifetime Contribution to Political Studies (by the UK Political Studies Association) in 2016.


  • Department of Politics
  • University Center for Human Values