EVERY DAY we are confronted with more evidence of pervasive inequality. Our commitment to egalitarian ideals has been severely tested by everything from the untenable quality of the United States’s yawning wealth gap to the resurgence of an ethno-nationalism that has led to anti-humanitarian policies against Latinx migrants and Muslim families.

But while equality is an urgent concern, it is also a surprisingly elusive concept. It is often promised at the highest level of abstraction — “all men are created equal” or “equal protection of the laws” — where its meaning can seem “self-evident,” if not exactly operational. That abstractness has kept philosophers and other thinkers puzzling over the matter, hoping that coming up with a coherent concept of equality will naturally, inevitably, win the day.

Of course, practically minded people have always been skeptical that a primarily concept-driven approach to solving society’s most intractable problems will be the key to unlocking a magical solution. Even the magnificent Declaration of the Rights of Man contained a built-in exception you could drive a truck through. After its soaring commitment to the notion that “all men are born and remain free and equal” came the fine print: “social distinctions” nevertheless may be founded upon “the general good.”

Historically, glittering generalities papered over the fact that equality — as a real, lived experience — emerged only from the righteous demands of the marginalized, which were then met by backlash or grudging compromises. When dramatic changes to this nation’s founding charter during Reconstruction extended civic equality to formerly enslaved people, for example, defenders of white supremacy fell back on forms of social stratification and political domination that evaded those lofty ideals. Even today, we face massive economic inequalities that could still destroy the United States’s democratic experiment if left unchecked. All too often, it seems that when high-minded principles meet exploitative realities, it is the concept of equality that is made to budge.

We must, therefore, stop treating equality as an arid, philosophical concept. Rather, it is an energetic struggle against the many powerful forces in our society which would be happy to get their way violently and at the expense of other people’s pain. This means that any solution worthy of associating with the term “equality” must materially improve the lives of those who routinely get the short end of the stick.

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The sheer gravity of the inequalities we face today means that we must read treatments of the topic with a more impatient attitude. Are our philosophers up to the task? Jeremy Waldron, for one, acknowledges that as philosophers opine, fellow citizens may find their writings “less and less ‘realistic,’ more and more detached from reality.” He worries, rightly, that “the success among us of the normativity of a given principle might depend on some concrete realization of its demands as an exemplar of practicability.”

This sense of concern leads Waldron to write One Another’s Equals, a revised collection of lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh in the winter of 2015. For Waldron, it’s critical to revisit and more fully explicate what is meant by “basic equality.” As he points out, it’s an idea that can be consistent with disparities in wealth, income, power, and opportunity. Even so, basic equality serves a discursive function in our politics “to patrol and discipline the way we argue in these matters.”

With characteristic erudition, Waldron argues that “basic equality” rests on certain capabilities all humans share, like the ability to feel pain, experience love, and use reason, even if they aren’t born with such capacities fully developed. He says that we must see equality as “continuous,” meaning that “all humans matter” and as “distinctively equal,” meaning that any differences between humans pale in comparison to those between humans and other species. Racism offends this notion of basic equality, as it would justify sacrificing the lives and future of people of color in exchange for improving the condition of white lives. So would a form of ableism that leaves profoundly disabled people at the complete mercy of others.

Yet lurking in Waldron’s book is a much harder question: when do we say that it is sufficient to merely gesture toward the basic humanity of all people, and when is it a command that must bring a policy to a complete halt? Waldron says that even suspected terrorists enjoy equal dignity, but he refuses to be pinned down as to whether that concern is strong enough to prohibit the targeted killing of terrorists. Throughout the lectures, he avoids specifying how basic equality should be weighed against other moral, political, and practical concerns.

An intriguing section of One Another’s Equals mentions how “basic equality” overlaps with other important ideas such as “equal worth,” “human dignity,” and “equal concern.” While Waldron doesn’t offer a complete defense of why our political culture should embrace a certain degree of overlap — or redundancy — of concepts, he does rightly insist that equality is distinctive and “is not to be regarded as just one cost among others, to be offset perhaps by other benefits.” What’s missing, though, is an evaluation of why conceptual overlap is important to the defense of rights. This matters, in my view, because at times one approach might be a credible substitute for another in reducing unequal burdens. Waldron doesn’t tell us when equality should be preferred to some other formulation that might do just as much good in reducing suffering, or when, other than when one’s basic humanity might be threatened, we’d want to insist upon basic equality as the method for resolving problems. This is key because sometimes a chisel will be sufficient to reduce someone’s unequal suffering, but other times we’ll need a sledgehammer to break down a door that has kept out an oppressed group for far too long.

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A more fruitful place to turn for answers in a complex world is T. M. Scanlon’s recent offering, Why Does Inequality Matter? — a slim book that packs a punch. Scanlon starts with a valuable concession that disarms the reader: “[B]asic moral equality is now widely accepted.” Unlike Waldron, then, Scanlon will “presuppose but not argue for it.” Instead, he is most interested in delineating the variety of reasons one might give when objecting to inequality.

Scanlon breaks down the concept of equality into six different reasons for opposing unequal treatment: (1) it creates “humiliating differences in status”; (2) it gives the rich unequal power over those who have less; (3) it undermines economic opportunity; (4) it corrodes the fairness with which political institutions must operate; (5) it violates the notion of equal concern with regard to a benefit the government is obliged to provide; and (6) it arises from economic institutions that are themselves unfair. Exploding the concept of equality into these six separate claims rescues the idea itself from a state of hopeless confusion. Even more critically, doing so revitalizes the principle for everyday usage by activists and policymakers alike.

Scanlon helpfully distinguishes between “equal concern” and “status inequality.” The first, and in many ways broader, idea is that social goods should generally be distributed in a way that shows concern for all members of a community, even though there may be decent reasons why some individuals wind up with more than others. This idea Scanlon applies to everything from policing neighborhoods to paving streets to providing health care. Since it is not necessarily obsessed with the bottom line, “equal concern” is also arguably a thinner idea, though this might lend itself to greater utility in ensuring the decent treatment of non-citizens in our midst.

A second idea — “status inequality” — involves what he calls status-based harms. These entail imposing notions of superiority and inferiority: white/black, rich/poor, gifted/untalented.The concept of status inequality gives rise to the familiar anti-discrimination or anti-caste principle. Productively, Scanlon’s approach to status inequality ventures beyond more classical formulations that hew closely to valuable civic goods and might exclude economic goods, for he explicitly considers how “economic inequality can lead to objectionable inequality in status.” This happens, he says, when “the ways that individuals dress, how they live, what they own or can consume […] may mark them as eligible or ineligible for certain roles” and certain “associational goods.”

While Scanlon may not consider himself a pragmatist, his relational approach makes it morally permissible to have more discrete conversations about different kinds of problems. This, in turn, can focus debates so as to facilitate resolution of particular disputes, without being tripped up by disagreement over a global notion of equality.

Throughout, Scanlon links the unequal treatment of individuals with how political and legal institutions are working. In a convincing chapter on political fairness, he argues that economic inequality — such as a wide disparity in wealth — can alter the way institutions treat us. Scanlon writes: “The legitimating force of elections is undermined if some citizens […] are unable to [vote or participate in politics] because they cannot afford the means required to become candidates for office, or to gain access to the public forum.” An outsize capacity by richer citizens to influence policymakers to their advantage can also “interfere with the proper functioning of political institutions.” The cumulative effects of political unfairness can then make it less likely that government officials will treat everyone with equal concern and protect substantive opportunities.

Where Scanlon’s approach begins to reach its limitations is when people acknowledge the existence of inequality but can’t agree on how to classify the problem. Consider this example: How should we understand a prosecutor’s office that almost always seeks the death penalty when a murder involves a white victim but rarely when there is a black victim? Some might perceive this as a problem of unequal concern, while others might perceive it as part of a historical effort to reinforce white supremacy and therefore a problem of unequal status. Still others might see that it is a form of political unfairness, since prosecutors are elected and this could be evidence of a distortion in how a political institution ought to function.

We would have to resort to some other method of sorting out disagreements that inevitably arise, so we might strike a bargain to do some amount of good. For a “practical egalitarian,” a term I use in my own work, that metric would have to be some measurable improvement in lifting unequal burdens — however that inequity might be characterized. How something is categorized is less of a priority to the pragmatist than reducing the misery of an affected population. Instead, reducing unequal harms and avoiding any worsening of inequalities should most sway a person to either fight for a first-best solution or instead accept a second-best remedy when one is available.

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To be sure, when it comes to the most intractable forms of racial and economic inequality, the causes and trend lines were set generations ago. Where philosophy falters, and history must take up the slack, is when it comes to turning ideas into power. More than consulting philosophy alone, the study of history can teach us how various forms of inequality mutually sustain one another, as well as where tangible progress can be made — given existing patterns of development and reaction. Thanks to the work of historians, we know about the abuses experienced by African Americans during chattel slavery and the violent retaking of political power by white citizens even as the country debated Reconstruction. What Keri Leigh Merritt accomplishes through her work is to complicate the historical conditions of black inequality in America by examining that experience alongside the plight of lower-class whites. In so doing, she reveals how status equality and economic freedom are entwined, so that improvements along one dimension and for one social group can either improve or retard progress for another group, along another fault line.

In Masterless Men, Merritt tells us that on the eve of the Civil War “56 percent of the country’s aggregate personal estate was concentrated in the South,” but the concentration of slave-owning in relatively few hands left the “pool of less affluent whites […] growing larger by the day.” Members of the planter class bought up smaller farms “by fair means or foul,” geographically isolating blacks from poor whites. Planters preferred enslaved workers to poor white labor not only for the economic benefits, but also for their perceived docility. White farmers who were able to scrape together enough money to lease lands from rich planters often became deeply indebted to the master class, especially when crops failed. As Merritt explains in lively prose, slavery also damaged the economic opportunities of poor whites by driving down wages. “Effectively excluded from the labor market, some of them withdrew from society” to lead a lifestyle of “minimal subsistence.” Others engaged in illegal activity to supplement their meager incomes.

In a sense, the aggressive postwar re-tethering of free blacks to the needs of white elites took place at the same time that poor whites became increasingly dislocated from the economic priorities of wealthy whites in the United States. Later, when courts and political institutions required formal equality between black and white citizens, such reforms alone were not enough to alter the trajectory of social and economic differences.

Seen in this light, the post-Reconstruction black codes arguably did double work. These laws weren’t seen by many to offend political equality but nevertheless criminalized everyday aspects of black existence and then created a repository of cheap black labor and free prison labor. The measures facilitated the empire-building project that once depended upon slavery, and did so by extending the anti-competitive practices of slavery in other ways — further degrading the value of labor generally, and keeping poor whites from competing in many industries. But much of this was done while paying lip service to the civic equality of whites and blacks as citizens.

A darker explanation of improved economic integration and formal equality for free blacks then emerges: allowing this population to gain a measure of respectability through work and citizenship was intended in part to make them less likely to sow discord among one another or to build alliances with poor whites or other nonwhites. And it was also done to encourage them to do their part to prop up a largely agricultural economy and the professional class that protected the investments of the wealthy.

At the same time, racially discriminatory laws signaled to poor white laborers that they should perceive themselves as socially superior to black people — enslaved or free — and to act against their class interests by aligning with white elites. For instance, Merritt points out that Deep South restrictions on abolitionist literature discouraged an already uneducated white working class from becoming useful allies to enslaved people. Along these same lines, vigilance committees not only menaced blacks; they also forced whites to police each other and to tamp down radicalism of all stripes.

That effort to foster white identity, and elevate it above any sense of class consciousness, began in the decades before the Civil War. But the project to mobilize working-class whites against working-class blacks would return with a vengeance again and again: after the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, during the Progressive period, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and even during the tenure of the United States’s first black president. The demonization of migrants from other countries follows somewhat different patterns, but they intersect in crucial ways that exacerbate existing inequities and threaten to short-circuit coalitions among the working poor.

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Once we leave utopia behind, equality as a lived idea is characterized by material improvements over time gained through successive tradeoffs.

Ironically, right at this very moment when the United States has become a pluralistic democracy, the risk is that merely tinkering with legal rules and economic policies at this stage would almost certainly leave racial and class divisions in place, where they continue to fester. Now, as then, inter-class and cross-racial politics are critical to transform constitutional understandings and improve material conditions in ways that benefit everyone. To do this hard work of equality, we will need the insights of philosophers and historians alike.

Waldron reminds us that big ideas matter — they help us ensure that a society’s most precious resources can be allocated according to its basic values. Building on this commitment, Scanlon invites us to understand inequality as a series of interlocking problems, justifications, and harms. Finally, the lesson to be drawn from Merritt’s magnificent work is that the problem of justice requires enormous bridge-building exercises if we wish to level the playing field without worsening other forms of inequality. History shows us the limits of ideological progress, but also reveals opportunities that can be seized, if only we can muster the courage and the know-how.

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Robert L. Tsai is the author of Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation (W. W. Norton, 2019) and America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard University Press, 2014).