Conceptions of Equality/Plato, Aristotle and additions

(References from a variety of sources, among them Joel Feinberg's Social Philosophy, Taylor's Plato, Ross's Aristotle, Strauss and Cropsey's History of Political Philosophy, the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hobbes's Leviathan, Elements of Law, De Cive, and The Whole Art of Rhetoric)

How is equality to be understood?

Should everyone have equal opportunity, or should all outcomes be equal?

Should rights be held equally, or only by desert? 

The idea of human rights (distinctively) includes the notion that all persons derive their status as human beings.  This entails that rights belong to all human beings, whether they are foolish or wise, rich or poor, black or white.  The notion is further understood that human rights are independent of merit (though merit may confer on a person more rights).

If we claim that all people are equal, what does this mean, from what source does equality arise?

Problems with these three possibilities:

Some people try the route to equality in claiming that there is "common humanity" that makes us all equal and valuable.  But that still leaves open the question what makes humanity valuable.

Pain and suffering are not constant - some are more susceptible to pain than others, for example.  And what of cases in which we can treat people in ways that are obviously unjust, though they feel no pain (so far as we know)?  An example is executing or murdering someone when that person does not expect it, and doing so in a way in which the person suffers not at all.

Rationality is suspect as a basis of equality since not all human beings are equally rational, and not all human beings are rational at all.

    -A brief excursion into the Hobbesian notion of human value or worth

Which notion of human equality is (most) defensible?  Perhaps it is the notion of a kind of Kantian ultimacy of human dignity, autonomy and value that we recognize in a non-rational way - perhaps our equality is purely subjective - perhaps human worth is something that is intuitive or groundless because it is a basic truth?


Plato and Aristotle on Human and Political Equality


    Democracy comes into being as degenerating oligarchy.  Oligarchs are rich, fat, and lazy.  "Democracy comes about when the poor are victorious, killing some of their opponents and expelling others, and giving the rest an equal share in ruling under the constitution, and for the most part assigning people to positions of rule by lot."  (Rep., 557a-b)

    Democracy is characterized by great freedom in every sense, where a person can do anything he wishes or wills to do.  It is the form of government in which one finds people of all varieties. 

    "And what about the city's tolerance?  Isn't it so completely lacking in small-mindedness that it utterly despises the things we took so seriously when we were founding our city, namely, that unless someone had transcendent natural gifts, he'd never become good unless he played the right games and followed a fine way of life from early childhood?  Isn't it magnificent the way it tramples all this underfoot, by giving no thought to what someone was doing before he entered public life and by honoring him if only he tells them that he wishes the majority well?

        -Background of the Platonic perfect state:

The democratic man always surrenders to his desires, allowing those desires to rule over him.

ARISTOTLE, from Politics

    Justice is equality, but only for equals; and justice is inequality, but only for those who are unequal.

Why do people constitute themselves in communities?

    It is natural to do so.  Note Aristotle's notion that the state is a natural institution, and arises from natural affiliations/associations among people - from the most basic, man and woman, for purposes of procreation; then to the family, which provides for daily needs; then to the village, which is composed of families and can transcend daily needs; then to the state, which is most perfect, and most varied.  We are, for Aristotle, naturally social or political animals.  Further, the state, he claims, is prior to the individual, not in the order of nature, but in the order of becoming.  There is, then, a natural hierarchy - a naturalness to domination and submission, since the wife naturally submits to her husband, the child to the parent, the slave or servant to the master, etc.

For what purposes might people create communities?

The last three must be present for there to be a city-state, but they alone are not enough.  The state exists "only when households and families live well as a community whose end is a complete and self-sufficient life." (POL, 1280b,30-35)  All of these things are the result of friendship.

        -What is the Aristotelian notion of friendship (NIC ETH, Bk. VIII, 2-5)?

Democracy arises from people who are equal in some ways thinking they are unqualifiedly equal.  Oligarchy arises from those who are unequal in some ways thinking they are then completely unequal.

Faction arises from inequality - when unequals fail to get proportionately equal things. 

Democracy is least likely to result in faction; but oligarchies are likely to experience faction because they disagree among themselves and with all other people.  Democracy is ruling and being ruled - not based on merit, but based on numerical equality - whatever the majority decides is "right" - and since there are more poor than any others, their opinion is the majority opinion.  Oligarchs determine that what is right or just is what those with property decide. 

    For Aristotle, both of these are wrong.  A constitution based on the middle classes is closer to a democracy than to an oligarchy, and is more secure.

            --- A look at Aristotle's notion of types of states:

  True Perverted
One Monarchy Tyranny
Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Many Politeia (Polity) Democracy