Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Interview

"Equality has Always Been Conditional on Being a Particular Kind of Human": Interview with Anne Phillips

Anya Pearson

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| 11 mins read

Anya Pearson interviews Professor Anne Phillips, one of the most distinguished political theorists of our time, after her 2021 Political Quarterly Annual Lecture. Phillips is the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. Well known for her influential work The Politics of Presence: the Political Representation of Gender, Race, and Culture (1995), Phillips has just published a new title, Unconditional Equals, in which she calls for a genuinely unconditional equality.

You argue that equality cannot be conditional on a shared human nature, but has to be for all. Could you explain this in more detail?

Phillips: There’s a very strong 'stages' notion of equality across all political persuasions, in which we think in terms of a distinction between formal and substantive equality. It’s the idea that, historically, people were made equal before the law, then given the vote, and that now the big task facing us is trying to transform that in to economic and social equality.

However, this notion of equality lulls us into thinking that we already have basic equality; that there is now a consensus that all human beings are of equal worth. Yet the more you delve into the history of equality, the more you realise that equality has always been attached to conditions, usually revolved round a particular archetype of the human that couldn't possibly be female, black or brown.

We have to move away from this idea that equality is conditional on being a particular kind of human. That means moving away from giving reasons for regarding others as your equals, for example by saying: "Like me, they have dignity, or the capacity for a sense of justice". Even that seemingly very innocent giving-of-reasons imposes conditionality. And it gives us an alibi for excluding many people. At its heart, that's what my book Unconditional Equals is about.

How does your new book Unconditional Equals extend your previous work?

Phillips: Just about all of my work has been about equality in some sense – from political representation, the underrepresentation of women, multiculturalism, and thinking about what equal citizenship means in multicultural society, to thinking about the relationship between equality and difference.

I’ve enjoyed writing this book, partly as a way of reflecting on those things I've continued to think, and those things I think rather differently about now.

Why did you choose to publish the book at this particular time?

Phillips: We all know that the inequalities within each of our own societies are staggering. We are back to the bad old days where, generally speaking, the gap between rich and poor is increasing again.

Identity politics has also come to the fore, and people are quite rightly preoccupied by ways in which people are treated as inferiors by virtue of their gender, sexuality, religion, race, and so on. I wanted to challenge the ways in which people on the left too easily dismiss this as a distraction. That's like saying "We already have basic equality. Why are you complaining? Let's get onto the really serious things like social and economic inequality". That’s a real misreading of the world we're in.

How different is your notion of equality from the concept of equality in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? 

Phillips: Obviously, we see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as this moment in which we really do commit ourselves to the idea that all human beings, simply by being human, are of equal significance and standing. There are references in the Declaration to dignity as the reason, but it isn't necessary. You can just say: simply by virtue of being human, we are all of equal standing. So it’s a really important declaration which fits with the kind of argument I'm making about thinking of equality as genuinely unconditional. But the Declaration was so far from capturing what actually was going on either at that moment, or in the 70 years subsequently.

What was the most important thing you found out in the course of your work and writing?

Phillips: I went back to the early writings and notions of equality. I read the Jamaican novelist and theorist Sylvia Wynter, who wrote really compelling work about the Spanish invasion of the Americas. She argues that a particular human norm came into existence at that point in time which was attached to notions of different kinds of human beings, in which the white male European was overrepresented. And that's cascaded down through the centuries in all kinds of racist exclusions.

Your example of changes to Universal Credit during the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain was very persuasive. Can you talk about that?

Phillips: Many of us were horrified when the government decided to simply remove the £20 uplift of Universal Credit, but it's worth thinking about why they introduced it in the first place. Clearly it wasn’t because the government was rolling in money or that they thought that living in lockdown was going to be so much more expensive!

It was a recognition that after over a decade of benefit reductions, Universal Credit was stunningly inadequate. It was embarrassing to think of ordinary people, who had been on average wages, being reduced to this level. Subsequently getting rid of the uplift was such a revealing illustration that some people matter and others don't.

What does a “claim and a commitment to ourselves and others to regard one another as equal” mean in practical terms?

Phillips: In philosophical terms, we need to stop thinking of equality as requiring justifications. It seems odd, because people think: "You’ve got to give a reason". But in doing that, you're making it conditional on whether you do indeed have those qualities.

The practical implication of moving to a claim and a commitment is recognising that this isn’t about making an argument. It’s is about the political stance that you adopt in your life, in your community, in your political actions. I'm very aware, for example, of the extraordinary class snobbery that goes on in our society. None of us are free of this. Thinking of equality as a claim and commitment means constantly challenging those ways in which we disregard certain people as not mattering.

I’m thinking of the current refugee crisis. Surely exclusion from equal treatment on the basis of where someone is from, is no less objectionable than discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or religion? Where do you stand on this?

Phillips: I don’t think my argument resolves the question about what kind of immigration policies are defensible for countries to adopt. But they’ve got to recognise that all humans have equal significance and status.

70 per cent or so of people claiming asylum or so will be recognised as having legitimate claims. Yet we subject these people, who have been through the most extraordinary horrors, to being locked up like prisoners. And I don't think we should treat prisoners like that either!

What advice do you have for people who want to devise and implement polices based on your arguments?

Phillips: The main implication is to get away from the notion that equality is something that can be divided up into stages. This has quite specific implications for policymaking. You can't say: "Let's focus on the material side, or the so-called identity side." You have to think about equality in a holistic way – these things are almost always interconnected.

Having said that, there are qualifications. There are certain kinds of advances you can't make unless you’ve first done other things. I'm not challenging that.

With the growing pursuit of artificial intelligence, questions about our moral duty towards new technology could become increasingly important. Personhood, and/or conscious awareness of the sort that human beings possess could be seen in robots. How, if at all, does this impact your argument?

Phillips: I think that way of framing it is buying too much into equality depending on characteristics. That’s a lot in AI literature that says: "If we define being human by reference to this ability or that ability, and we subsequently discover this ability in the great apes or in AI, then we’re going to have to give to these beings the same kind of rights and considerations as we give to humans”. I'm trying to shift the basis of the argument. I don't think the way forward is to start identifying the things about humans that we regard as valuable, and then whenever we see them in anything else we need to treat that as equal too.

We owe a lot of consideration to animals, and that sets major constraints on the ways that we can turn them into beings simply for our own use. It's a different kind of argument from how we treat other humans. There’d be something similar that I’d want to develop in relation to AI – it's not because they're like humans that they deserve a certain level of treatment.

Unconditional Equals by Anne Phillips is available now via Princeton Press. 

  • Anya Pearson

    Anya Pearson

    Anya Pearson is Social Media and Events Editor and Co-editor of the Political Quarterly blog.

    Articles by Anya Pearson