Discrimination and Freedom

Authored by: Sophia Moreau

The Routledge Handbook of the Ethics of Discrimination

Print publication date:  August  2017
Online publication date:  August  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138928749
eBook ISBN: 9781315681634
Adobe ISBN:


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There has been a longstanding debate in Anglo-American political philosophy about the relationship between freedom and equality. Isaiah Berlin argued that these two values are always potentially in conflict: full social and political equality can only be achieved by taking certain freedoms away from some people, and even though we may be justified in doing this, we must, according to Berlin, acknowledge the very real loss that this involves and not pretend that it can ever be fully compensated by a gain in equality (Berlin 1969). Many contemporary political philosophers have followed Berlin in assuming that freedom and equality are competing values, and they have offered us different accounts of the respective weight of these values in a theory of justice: libertarians emphasize the importance of protecting individuals’ liberties, whereas egalitarians emphasize the need to promote social and political equality. Other philosophers, however, have denied that the two values stand in tension at all. Peter Westen and Joseph Raz have urged that equality is really an “empty” value: people are treated as equals when they are given what they are entitled to (Westen 1982; Raz 1982). On this account, freedom is the primary value, and people are treated as equals as long as each of them is given as much freedom as they are entitled to. By contrast, Ronald Dworkin argued that it is equality, and not freedom, that is the “sovereign virtue”: far from being an empty value, the proper conception of equality will tell us which kinds of freedom we are entitled to, and why (Dworkin 2000).

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