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What If The Way We Think About Freedom And Equality Is All Wrong?47:13

(Christophe Ena/AP)
(Christophe Ena/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Are freedom and equality always at odds? Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson makes the case that we're thinking about this wrong, and lays out how to have more of both.


Elizabeth Anderson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan (@UMichiganNews). Author of "Value in Ethics and Economics," "The Imperative of Integration" and "Private Government."

Lionel McPherson, professor of philosophy at Tufts University. (@TuftsUniversity)

From The Reading List

New Yorker: "The Philosopher Redefining Equality" — "American stories trace the sweep of history, but their details are definingly particular. In the summer of 1979, Elizabeth Anderson, then a rising junior at Swarthmore College, got a job as a bookkeeper at a bank in Harvard Square. Every morning, she and the other bookkeepers would process a large stack of bounced checks. Businesses usually had two accounts, one for payroll and the other for costs and supplies. When companies were short of funds, Anderson noticed, they would always bounce their payroll checks. It made a cynical kind of sense: a worker who was owed money wouldn’t go anywhere, or could be replaced, while an unpaid supplier would stop supplying. Still, Anderson found it disturbing that businesses would write employees phony checks, burdening them with bounce fees. It appeared to happen all the time.

"Midway through summer, the bank changed its office plan. When Anderson had started, the bookkeepers worked in rows of desks. Coördination was easy—a check that fell under someone else’s purview could be handed down the line—and there was conversation throughout the day. Then cubicles were added. That transformation interrupted the workflow, the conversational flow, and most other things about the bookkeepers’ days. Their capacities as workers were affected, yet the change had come down from on high.

"These problems nagged at Anderson that summer and beyond. She had arrived at college as a libertarian who wanted to study economics. In the spirit of liberal-arts exploration, though, she enrolled in an introductory philosophy course whose reading list included Karl Marx’s 1844 manuscripts concerning worker alienation. Anderson thought that Marx’s economic arguments about the declining rate of profit and the labor theory of value fell apart under scrutiny. But she was stirred by his observational writings about the experience of work. Her summer at the bank drove home the fact that systemic behavior inside the workplace was part of the socioeconomic fabric, too: it mattered whether you were the person who got a clear check or a bounced check, whether a hierarchy made it easier or harder for you to excel and advance. Yet economists had no way of factoring those influences into their thinking. As far as they were concerned, a job was a contract—an exchange of labor for money—and if you were unhappy you left. The nature of the workplace, where most people spent half their lives, was a black box.

"Anderson grew intellectually restless. Other ideas that were presented as cornerstones of economics, such as rational-choice theory, didn’t match the range of human behaviors that she was seeing in the wild. She liked how philosophy approached big problems that cut across various fields, but she was most excited by methods that she encountered in the history and the philosophy of science. Like philosophers, scientists chased Truth, but their theories were understood to be provisional—tools for resolving problems as they appeared, models valuable only to the extent that they explained and predicted what showed in experiments. A Newtonian model of motion had worked beautifully for a long time, but then people noticed bits of unaccountable data, and relativity emerged as a stronger theory. Couldn’t disciplines like philosophy work that way, too?"

New York Times: "What’s Wrong With Inequality?" — "Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.

"To argue that taxes on income and wealth limit the freedom wealthy people is like opposing stoplights on the grounds that they limit the freedom of movement of people in cars at red lights.

"Of course, there are standard cases of discrimination on the basis of antipathy against, or favoritism towards, arbitrary identity groups — such as race, gender and sexual orientation. But I want to stress the many ways in which unjust social hierarchy is manifested in other ways besides direct discrimination or formally differential treatment. The discrimination/differential treatment idea captures only a small part of what counts as unjust inequality.

"On this broader view of unjust inequality, we can see three different types of social hierarchy at work. One is inequalities of standing, which weigh the interests of members of some groups more heavily than others. For example, perhaps out of negligence, a courthouse or hotel may lack elevators and ramps for people in wheelchairs. A law firm may promote a culture of off-hours socializing over drinks between partners and associates that excludes women who need to spend time with their children from opportunities for networking and promotion. As Anatole France noted, 'The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.' "

The Atlantic: "Social-Media Outrage Is Collapsing Our Worlds" — "Has the internet afforded humans more freedom, or less?

"That’s a question I’m pondering anew thanks to the University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, who provoked the thought while being interviewed by Nathan Heller for a recent profile in The New Yorker.

"After Europe’s religious wars, Anderson mused, as centuries of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants gave way to a liberal, live-and-let-live order that tolerated freedom of religion, something remarkable happened:

"People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free.

"That’s a bold claim! Yet one needn’t accept Anderson’s definition of freedom to appreciate her insight. Here’s a more modest version: The ability to slip into a domain and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining identities in other domains is something most Americans value, both to live in peace amid difference and for personal reasons."

Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.

This program aired on January 24, 2019.


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