Featured Philosop-her: Rekha Nath

I am pleased to welcome Rekha Nath. Rekha Nath is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama.  She specializes in political philosophy and ethics, with a particular interest in global justice.  She received her B.A. in philosophy and political science from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne.  Recent publications include, ‘Equal Standing in the Global Community,’ The Monist, 94.4, pp. 593-614, (2011); ‘Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: A Critique of Virginia Held’s Deontological Justification of Terrorism,’ Social Theory and Practice, 37.4, pp. 679-696, (2011); and ‘The commitments of cosmopolitanism,’ Ethics & International Affairs, 24.3, pp. 319-333, (2010).

Her post follows.



Social equality offers an explanation of why equality is valuable. On this view, the fundamental object of egalitarian concern is relationships: people ought to relate to one another on terms of equality. But what is the scope of the theory? That is, who ought to structure their interaction with whom on terms of equality?

To investigate this issue, consider a case that builds on one discussed by Michael Blake in ‘Distributive justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy.’ Borduria and Syldavia are societies that reside on opposite sides of a mountain and have long been unaware of each other’s existence. The Bordurians enjoy a much higher standard of living than the Syldavians, in part enabled by the comparative abundance of valuable natural resources in the Bordurian territory.  One day, the Syldavians traverse the mountain and find themselves in Borduria.

Fast forward some twenty years to a time when the Bordurians and Syldavians have forged widespread economic and political ties. Although mutually beneficial, these arrangements disproportionately serve the Bordurians’ interests. Bordurian corporations have set up factories in Syldavia, where labor is plentiful and cheap. The average Bordurian consumer now has access to a wider range of cheap manufactured goods, and the standard of living is improving across the board for Bordurian citizens.

In contrast, Syldavian citizens are only slightly better off in material terms as a result of the cross-society arrangements. Prior to establishing these arrangements, they accepted their way of life, knowing no other possibility. Now they strive for what the Bordurians have. But opportunities for social and economic advancement are lacking. Syldavian migrant workers in Borduria take the lowest paying jobs without a path to citizenship. They reside in slums and are not welcomed to join in the Bordurian civic life. Bordurians treat them as inferiors, and that is how they feel.

The terms of interaction between the Bordurians and Syldavians are inegalitarian. What might a call for greater equality require? More equal relations could be achieved in a plurality of ways. For instance, an international political decision-making body giving Bordurians and Syldavians an equal voice in determining the nature of their interaction could be established.  The Bordurian government could take steps to promote social inclusion of immigrants and greater parity in material gains enabled by international cooperation.

Should the Bordurians and Syldavians strive for more egalitarian relations? Initially, one might think not. It might seem that the Bordurians and Syldavians weren’t obligated to forge relations—economic, social, or political ones—in the first place.  So, it seems that now, rather than having to radically alter their relationships with the Syldavians as per the proposed measures, the Bordurians could legitimately sever all forms of cross-border interaction, going back to the situation of autarky. In doing so, there would no longer be any relationships between them that might be judged inegalitarian. In sum, if members of both societies voluntarily choose to interact, why should they have to structure their relations on terms of equality?

To my mind, however, for the Bordurians to address the unequal terms of interaction by cutting off relations with the Syldavians would be unacceptable. Rather, they ought to aim for greater equality in their relations. I will propose a way that a theory of social equality can account for this intuition.

Let’s go back to the time when the two societies initially made contact. Suppose that the first Syldavians to make their way into Borduria marvel at how much better things are on this side of the mountain. Wandering into a vast orchard, these Syldavians stake a claim to a few small plots, which look rather neglected.  After the Syldavians have been tending to their newly acquired land for a few months, some Bordurians inform them that they are trespassing and that if they do not leave immediately the authorities will be called.  So, this is a case in which parties make competing claims to the use of the same resource.

Whenever parties are positioned to make such competing claims, addressing those claims is unavoidable.  It might seem otherwise.  After all, such parties could retreat from their conflict.  For example, the Syldavians could abandon the orchards and return to their home country.  However, retreating is not neutral: it affects how the competing claims are resolved.  The Syldavians’ taking that course of action settles the conflict in the Bordurians’ favor. Effectively, then, retreating is a way of addressing the claims.

So, the question then arises of how individuals positioned to make competing claims ought to address those claims. And this is a question of distributive justice: to what distributive shares are these individuals entitled? The terms that define people’s distributive entitlements, adjudicating between competing claims, can affect the character of their relationships—including the extent to which they are egalitarian.  If people’s relationships ought to be structured on terms of equality, then it follows that the design of these terms should be sensitive to that consideration.  This reasoning provides a basis for taking the institutional terms that result in the inegalitarian relations between Bordurians and Syldavians to be unjust. These terms are unjust for upholding a distribution that is incompatible with egalitarian relations. To summarize, in virtue of the unavoidability of addressing competing claims concerning material shares, demands of distributive justice arise; and satisfying these demands requires sensitivity to the character of social and political relations.

The foregoing reasoning supports the following principle: whenever individuals are positioned to make competing claims concerning material resources, the demands of social equality—that they relate as equals—are activated.  This principle has implications for an important question on the scope of social equality, namely, whether social equality applies only among those who share a state.  Plainly individuals who do not share a state can be positioned to make competing claims concerning material resources, as the Borduria/Syldavia case illustrates. Therefore, by the competing-claims principle, it follows that social equality need not be limited in its application to individuals who share a state.

My argument provides a framework for determining where the demand for egalitarian relations arises.  This is an issue that has not received sufficient attention in the social equality literature. Some authors who discuss social equality take relations of equality to be morally valuable for reasons independent of distributive justice (e.g. Martin O’Neill, David Miller, and Charles Beitz). That view does not deliver an answer to the question of where the demand to address inegalitarian relations applies: it simply takes inegalitarian relations to be objectionable wherever we find them.  Other authors endorse the commitment that I defend, that the two values, social equality and distributive justice, are inextricably linked.  Authors in this camp (e.g. Elizabeth Anderson and Samuel Scheffler) tend not to take a stand on the scope issue.  Samuel Freeman is an exception.  But he holds that demands of distributive justice, and thus of social equality, only apply in the state—a view that should be rejected if my argument is sound.


4 responses

  1. Hi Rekha, I find your argument ingenious and intuitively appealing. If I understand correctly, you’re saying two things:
    (1) that relational equality is instrumental to achieving distributive equality: we cannot (or are unlikely to) address the latter properly in the absence of the former;
    (2) that (therefore?) the existence of a distributive problem is sufficient to raise the question whether the individuals who are concerned by that problem relate to each other as equals.
    I have some questions of clarification: is the ‘therefore’ at point (2) correct, or are relational-egalitarian concerns activated when two people make competing claims over resources, whether or not relational equality is instrumental to achieving distributive justice?
    And, related: would you agree that relational equality has value that goes beyond this instrumental value?
    Thank you for an interesting post!

  2. Thanks for your questions, Anca. In response, I should clarify my view. Although I do regard (1) to be a justified claim (an empirically contingent one), it’s not a claim that I explicitly set out to defend in my post. Rather, I take relational equality to be constitutive of distributive justice: satisfying the demands of distributive justice requires, in part, satisfying the demands of relational equality. So, in my view, distributive justice is not only a matter of upholding fair distributive shares but also requires striving for egalitarian social and political relations. Putting (1) in those terms, then, I do endorse (2). That is, on the basis of the conceptual point defended in (1), I take the existence of competing claims over resources between some parties to be sufficient to give rise to demands of relational equality between those parties. Although I do think relational equality tends to be instrumentally valuable in securing more egalitarian material distributions (and vice versa, that greater material equality tends to be instrumentally valuable in securing relational equality), I take relational equality to have independent moral value. In the cases I’m concerned with in the argument I’ve put forward, I take this moral value to be a component of the demands of distributive justice. But I don’t claim that this is the only sort of case in which it has value or in which parties may be morally required to work towards greater relational equality.

  3. Pingback: Featured Philosop-her: Kristina Meshelski « Political Philosop-her

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