Daniel Viehoff (New York University): "Power and Equality"

Thu, Mar 8, 2018, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
301 Marx Hall

ABSTRACT: Why should we care about the equal distribution of political power (or ‘political equality’, for short)? Recently a number of democratic theorists have proposed that the most plausible defense of political equality ties it to the non-derivative value of egalitarian relationships. According to these ‘relational egalitarian’ proposals, political equality is an essential component of certain valuable egalitarian relationships, and required for ours to be a ‘society of equals.’

Yet (this paper argues) despite the intuitive force of the relational egalitarian position, articulating a satisfying version of it is more difficult than has been recognized. Two different examples of ‘relating to others as equals’ are commonly invoked: that of an egalitarian society in which everyone has equal status (rather than the kind of unequal social status we associate with, e.g., caste structures); and that of egalitarian relationships, such as friendships or marriages among equals. These examples, the paper shows, have quite different implications for the distribution of political power; and arguments starting from either face significant problems.

While egalitarian relationships like friendship do include a positive requirement of equal power, the ideal of equal social status does not. So the latter ideal provides much weaker support for political equality than has been recognized by those appealing to it in their defenses of democracy. Appeals to egalitarian relationships like friendship may thus seem to provide stronger support for political equality. But whether they in fact do so depends on whether political relationships can be usefully assimilated to friendship, in principle and in practice.

BIO: Daniel Viehoff (BA Oxford, MPhil UCL, PhD Columbia, JD Yale) is an Assistant Professor in NYU's Philosophy Department. Daniel's research focuses on political, legal, and moral philosophy. He is especially interested in questions of political authority and legitimacy, and in democratic theory. Daniel is currently completing a book manuscript on the distinctive authority (if any) possessed by democratic legislative procedures. In addition he is doing research on the nature of voting rights and the justification of universal enfranchisement, and has served as an expert witness on the ethics of prisoner voting before the British Parliament. Prior to joining NYU Daniel was a permanent lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Yale's Political Science Department and a Faculty Fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics.