- Pragmatist Egalitarianism by David Rondel
David Rondel. Oxford UP, 2018.
Debates about "equality" are pervasive in our politics today. The widening gap between the rich and the poor is having major effects on our society and politics, galvanizing social justice movements on the left and nationalist-populist movements on the right. On a different register, America's culture war is heating up on topics such as privilege, oppression, identity, racism, patriarchy, implicit bias, and so forth. These debates are not always as constructive as they might be, in part because the concept of equality is a complicated, contested, and confusing term. Although everyone seems to care about equality, we do not all mean the same thing—just consider the typical contrast between "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcome," or whether "equal treatment" should be "color-blind." What kind of equality should we care about and fight for? It is here, when we start stumbling, that philosophers may have a useful role to play.
David Rondel's Pragmatist Egalitarianism is an exciting contribution to this important set of topics. Well-versed in the contemporary literature in analytic political philosophy on debates about egalitarianism, Rondel makes the case that the tradition of American pragmatism can help clarify some of the tensions and confusions about equality within political philosophy and within our public political discourse. Part I of the book summarizes and clarifies the current state of the debate. Mirroring in some ways the discussions taking place in our politics and culture, the literature on egalitarianism breaks into two camps: (1) discussions of "vertical" egalitarianism between the citizen and the state, which concern questions of redistribution, class, and resources; and (2) discussions of "horizontal" egalitarianism between [End Page 112] citizens within civil society, which concern questions of recognition, identity, and respect. It seems, from much of the literature, that these two camps see themselves as competing for the same terrain. Is inequality, ultimately, a problem of redistribution or of recognition? Is our fight for equality, ultimately, about achieving a society where everyone has equitable resources or a society where everyone is accorded equal respect? Rondel calls our attention to the "ultimately" in the previous two questions: Why do philosophers feel the need to reduce one set of concepts to another? The culprit, writes Rondel, is a "broader philosophical longing for comprehensiveness and fundamentality," a perennial affliction of philosophy and a favorite object of critique for pragmatists (63). Once we cast off this reductionist impulse, Rondel argues, we can stop thinking in either/or terms and instead seek more pluralistic, open-ended, experimental solutions to the problems of inequality.
In Part II of the book, Rondel lays out his proposal for moving beyond the current impasse between vertical and horizontal egalitarianism. Rondel proposes that we think about egalitarianism along three axes: institutional, personal, and cultural. This "tri-pronged" approach is said to better capture the complexities of inequality compared to the vertical/horizontal approach. While the tri-pronged approach is helpful, it is not clear that Rondel has really displaced the traditional vertical/horizontal schema: Are not the personal/ cultural prongs just subdivisions of horizontal equality, and doesn't the institutional prong largely overlap with vertical equality? In any case, Rondel enlists three pragmatist philosophers to help him make his case: Dewey for institutional egalitarianism, James for personal egalitarianism, and Rorty for cultural egalitarianism.
Deweyan institutional egalitarianism reminds us that institutions are "instruments" that shape individuals, and we should construct our institutions (at the levels of politics, education, and civil society) to allow all individuals to flourish and develop their unique potential. This means going beyond merely formal liberal rights to ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities and resources necessary for such flourishing. The way to accomplish this is Dewey's famous vision of "democracy as a way of life": that is, democracy and cooperation at all levels of society.
Jamesian individual egalitarianism is a vision of individualism suited for democratic life, which Rondel breaks into four interrelated commitments: (1) Everyone's individuality counts equally, (2) each individual should be able to flourish, (3) such flourishing can be stifled by intolerance, and (4) we must...