In defense of teleological egalitarianism, pt. 1

by Daniel Andersson

As the post-WWII model of the welfare state looks helplessly outdated, one of the most controversial and passionately debated issues, when it comes to the question of equality, is without doubt the distribution of resources, or to be more specific, what equality demands in regards to distribution and redistribution. This is true both on a local and a global scale, but with nationalism still retaining a relatively strong hold on our sentiments of social affiliation, it is largely reduced to being spoken of within the context of the nation-state. Yet, with the Greek government-debt crisis still fresh in mind, and as a result of the arrival of Syrian refugees into a European Union both hesitant and without the power needed for collective action, we are reminded that these questions enjoy a far greater range than any historically motivated boundaries of “a people” can account for. Our political, social and economic lives are far more complicated for any nation or continent to successfully “protect itself” – the discourse of security and risk assessment is usually the language spoken when such arguments are put forward – and seal itself off from its environment. Despite all this, policies of protectionism are the first staging-post for any political community powerful enough to sustain economic losses to such a degree that it can wear down its “competitors” and reframe their politico-economic interests – ironically, the same communities with enough power to globally enforce free trade policies through international treaties and organizations such as the WTO – and all this in the name of freedom, that principle which guarantees the integrity of any entity as valuable “in itself” or “as an end in itself”; admittedly a very modern, Kantian notion. Equality then, is often granted the role of protector and upholder of the intrinsic value of an entity as an end in itself, yet, it is continually challenged on precisely these grounds. We shall allow the redistribution of resources so as to make sure that freedom is a guarantee for all, but redistribution shall simultaneously not be allowed to conflict with the in itself of the subject.

It seems then, that we are both receiving and producing mixed signals when it comes to the question of equality, something which, as Jacques Derrida has proposed, points to a larger tension in the expression of equality in relation to freedom (and vice versa) within Western philosophy. For Derrida, equality and freedom are two contradictory, but necessarily codependent claims (Derrida 2005). Equality hopes to guarantee that each entity within a community has equal value, most clearly this is seen in the ascription of one equal vote to each individual in a democracy, but it is also glimpsed in the imperative of the welfare state. Freedom, on the other hand, is a question of each individual’s singularity, the freedom to exceed a determination of the same that equality tries to establish. But, Derrida suggests, freedom is impossible without a concept of equality, the suggestion being that freedom must always take place in relation to limits imposed by others and we must, in theory at least, all be equally free. Democratic freedom only makes sense then, if everyone within the demos is equally free. So, equality becomes an integral part of freedom and because such equality is inscribed within freedom, equality is no longer merely a question of number and calculation, but itself becomes incalculable. The two concepts are intrinsically bound but in an autoimmune relation. Equality confines every singularity to a measurable unit that is infinitely substitutable. Freedom, on the other hand, exceeds this calculation and enables each singularity to be heterogeneous to others, it is a guarantee of the singularity of each individual, enabling every other to be treated as (wholly) other.

Despite these obvious tensions between freedom and equality, not the least in the political and economic conditions of our globalized and interdependent world, freedom is, strangely enough, enjoying a status that appears wholly detached from reality. And reversely, equality is a principle viewed with enough suspicion so as to delegate to it no value beyond guaranteeing that the individual is treated as an end in itself. Many commentators on the economic, political, aesthetic and philosophical changes since the last decade has singled out the 1980’s as a crucial moment, when changes in attitude towards what has been termed a “neo-liberal” or “postmodern” mindset was set in motion (See, for example, Harvey 1990; Jameson 1991). Regardless of the question of origin, such changes in attitude, in some way or another, appears to coincide with a general reaction to- and attempt to deal with the destructive expressions of the grand narratives and the universalizing, all-encompassing ideologies of the 20th century. Consequently, emphasis on the ungraspable and fleeting subject, as well as its inviolable autonomy, and suspicion toward representation (political or otherwise), follows from a caution not to repeat the same costly mistakes of attempting to establish utopia on earth. Its more hands-on, practical implications has expressed itself in many different attitudes, policies and actions, and in many different domains of life. As both the resource-efficiency of the classical welfare state, as well as its intrusiveness into the lives of its subjects, has been highlighted as particularly problematic, we have, for example, come to witness a slow but steady move away from welfare and towards workfare. And the state in general, although nationalism has allowed its formal structures to remain intact, is increasingly deprived of its authority (as an expression of the will of the people), to redistribute resources or otherwise meddle in the affairs of its subjects.

Some people, like Elizabeth Anderson (1999), have expressed their worry that this empirically manifest trend has been made visible even within the compounds of moral theory. Of course, a lot of the criticism of the welfare state mirror that of certain strands of egalitarian theories of equality. Just like proponents of workfare, critics of egalitarian approaches to equality often focus on the objection that egalitarians violate the negative freedom of individuals by taking away their hard earned goods, and further, that the redistribution of these goods merely undermines the personal responsibility of the receivers by guaranteeing outcomes regardless of their personal choices and their effort. Now, at a first glance this does not look like a particularly innovative observation. Rather, we would expect precisely that changes in the real world also would mirror trends in moral theory, and the other way around, that the study of empirical cases and the empirical support of certain theories would have an effect on the work going on within moral theory. What Anderson worries about though, is not that the trend merely would have shifted in favor of more inegalitarian ideas, but that the whole agenda and the conditions upon which the discussion of equality is taking place, has been skewed in favor of freedom, or liberty, as the guiding principle for the good life. Anderson’s interpretation is that this so-called pro-market, philosophical siege, since at least the last thirty years or so, effectively has shaped even the egalitarian strand of theory itself, and to such a degree that it now resembles very little of what was once a tradition with much more radical demands. According to her, the theoretical concession of the egalitarian tradition has been so notable that recent egalitarian writing even seems strangely detached from existing egalitarian, political movements (Anderson 1999: 288). It is worth noting, for example, that today’s popular conception within the field is in line with Rawls’ claim that we should permit inequalities as long as it does not harm the worst off. Many proponents of equality of fortune also accept a strong principle of self-ownership, and hence deplore interference with people’s choices to freely develop their talents, or any form of forced appropriation of those talents. To sum it up then, it is not very controversial to claim that many of the egalitarians today have given up on the notion that equality is intrinsically valuable – or to put it in terms of resources: that poverty could be said to be objectionable even if it was a result of lifestyle choices, and reversely, that richness could be said to be objectionable even if it was the result of ambition and hard work – in favor of a deontological- or priority-approach to equality, which would instead claim that inequality is bad only in so far as it violates our principles of comparative justice (or, what we have commonly agreed upon that we owe each other in the name of justice), or argue that inequality is not bad because some are worse off than others, but rather because they are worse off than they could have been (Parfit 1997: 88-89, 103-104).

In the name of the sovereignty of the individual then, the modernist desire for a teleological history and a universal subject must not only be abandoned, but continually deconstructed and criticized; it must be forbidden! Even within such a field of study as that of ecology and the environment, which historically has been closely associated to romantic notions of holism and mutual interdependence, such a desire for something more-than-human, and its flirtations with universalism and transcendence, has instead been reduced to the straw-man of just another destructive, modernist impetus. Within the hegemonic discourse of climate change, for example, it is supposedly the human desire to control and domesticate its environment that provides one of the foundations for understanding our current environmental crisis. The desire to establish anything absolute or universal, a “symbiotic whole” so to speak, in which every entity is but a part of something larger than itself, and all equal in relation to each other, is a desire for totalitarianism, as any representation of the entities belies their true nature and disregards them as “ends in themselves”. Yet, in the name of which moral imperative is such a desire for teleology criticized, if not from the quintessentially modernist, Kantian notion of the “in itself”, the noumenon? Contradictory enough, the autonomy and sovereignty of any given entity or subject, relies on the fact that it is precisely given, in other words, that it enjoys an in itself separately from anything constructed, performed or otherwise external to its allegedly coherent, internal self.

In fact, the in-itself of the individual does not appear more politically cautious or responsible than that of a teleological account of equality, as demonstrated by Derrida’s deconstruction of Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy dichotomy. Schmitt’s decisionistic account of justice serves as the ultimate symbol of the oppressive, totalitarian implications of a political sovereign, where the autoimmunity between self and other is left unproblematized, and where justice cannot be determined by the appeal to anything but the authority of the law. Schmitt is an extremely important figure to deal with, for Derrida, since he at one and the same time remains close to Derrida’s own deconstruction of metaphysical assumptions. For example, Derrida wholeheartedly agrees with Schmitt’s argument that modern political concepts can be said to be secularized versions of older theological concepts, such as the absolute conception of sovereignty (see Schmitt 1922), insofar as any account of universal justice in politics must suffer from the same problematic foundation between self-other that ontotheological concepts – that is, ontotheology as the reappropriation of God by metaphysics – also would. Nonetheless he disagrees with Schmitt that the basic definition of politics to which the establishment of community and the drive for political action must be reduced, is the distinction between friend and enemy (see Schmitt 1932). Derrida’s answer is that at the heart of Schmitt’s project is an attempt to ontologize the friend-enemy relation by turning it into the substantial essence of the political. His attempt to overcome Schmitt then is to demonstrate how his dependency on this binary opposition is an essentialism which in turn must be overturned, not by favoring either of them, but by questioning the whole notion of a solid distinction between friend and enemy (Derrida 1997). What is at stake is not merely the question if the friend should be valued over the enemy, but if the entire differential account of friends defined in opposition to enemies is possible to make in the first place. The idea of a friend, according to Derrida, is autoimmune, in the sense that it is always dependent upon the identification of the friend in opposition to an enemy: without both we could not speak of either. The friend then, serving as a example of any autonomous entity whatsoever, is an assumption which at its root is as problematic as that of an equality in itself, – that which it supposedly establishes as an impossibility – if not more problematic.

Nonetheless, even if Derrida is successful in refuting a decisionistic account of justice on the premises that Schmitt’s conception of the political is dependent upon a classical distinction between self and other, he (Derrida) can only accomplish this by retreating to a meta-political argument concerning the conditions of possibility of Schmitt’s conception of human nature. For Derrida too then, the teleology and universalism associated with modernity are ingredients of totalitarianism and represents nothing but death, the static absolution and determinism of both history and thought, where nothing can change anymore. The decision-making subject is never at terms with its own self, and is simultaneously both sovereign and self-closed. In its claim to presence (“this is democracy here-and-now”) democracy evokes the sovereignty that calls forth its destruction. Democracy is never fully present in the (sovereign) claim that democracy has arrived or been achieved. It is in this sense that democracy is always “to come”. Significantly, the “to come” here is not the positing of some horizon of possibility for democracy, as if it were an Idea (in a Platonic or regulative, Kantian, sense) that we must move towards. Rather the “to come” expresses the dislocation that structures the very possibility of democracy from within.

So, for Derrida then, mirroring the general trend that Anderson identifies within egalitarianism, the teleology, or in other words, the purposeful “in itself” of any community of individuals all equal in relation to each other, is forbidden, with the argument – and here we will see the contradiction of the argument in all its splendor – that any such teleology belies the individuals true nature such as she is before the construction of any possible identity, i.e. her inviolable noumenon. The argument for the impossibility of a transcendental upon which we can formulate a regulative, categorical imperative, is paradoxically enough a Kantian argument. Such an approach hostile to the characteristics of modernism – what might in some circumstances be confidently called post-modern – is thus, as Jameson has demonstrated (see Jameson 1994), essentially modern, in that it desires to escape its own historical condition. It desires to do away with the dialectic, and simultaneously avoid being historicized, since such historicity possesses the necessary tools to unravel to contradictory character of an account that itself implies its own coherent account of the contradictory characteristics of reality.

For the purpose of this meditation on equality then – which is equally a meditation on modernism, teleology and ecology – I want to (in a number of future blog posts) remain on-, and further explore the plausibility of the claim that equality lacks any intrinsic value, with the main purpose of investigating possible ways, today, of defending (or at least arguing in favor of) what Derek Parfit calls “teleological egalitarianism” (Parfit 1997: 84). I will do so particularly by paying close attention to-, and building upon what I take to be important philosophical attempts at problematizing the deontological- and the priority-approach to equality, from within the Anglo-American tradition of moral philosophy itself. Furthermore I wish to discuss these attempts in relation to literature traditionally outside this discipline, and in relation to field of ecology and the environmental humanities more generally, which likewise are rarely discussed in relation to questions of equality and distribution in the Anglo-American context. In this sense I hope to theoretically put an interdisciplinary twist to my exploration, and politically to connect certain loose ends which I understand as necessary for a radical egalitarian approach to ecological (as well as human) injustices.


Anderson, E. (1999) ”What’s the Point of Equality?”, Ethics, Vol. 109, No. 2.

Derrida, J. (1997) The Politics of Friendship (trans. George Collins), London & New York: Verso.

Derrida, J. (2005) Rogues: Two Essay’s On Reason (trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas), Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press.

Jameson (1994) “The Antinomies of Postmodernity”, in The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press.

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford: Blackwell.

Parfit, D. (1997) “Equality or Priority?”, Ratio, Vol. 10, No. 3.

Schmitt, C. (2005) (originally 1922) Politcal Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (trans. George Schwab), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmitt, C. (2007) (originally 1932) The Concept of the Political (expanded ed.) (trans. George Schwab), Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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