Freedom and equality

The usual view is that freedom and equality are in tension; the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that they’re interlaced.

Anderson is the chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy and a champion of the view that equality and freedom are mutually dependent, enmeshed in changing conditions through time. Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice. She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society. Her work, drawing on real-world problems and information, has helped to redefine the way contemporary philosophy is done, leading what might be called the Michigan school of thought. Because she brings together ideas from both the left and the right to battle increasing inequality, Anderson may be the philosopher best suited to this awkward moment in American life. She builds a democratic frame for a society in which people come from different places and are predisposed to disagree.

She is something of a pragmatist.

In 2004, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asked Anderson to compose its entry on the moral philosophy of John Dewey, who helped carry pragmatist methods into the social realm. Dewey had an idea of democracy as a system of good habits that began in civil life. He was an anti-ideologue with an eye for pluralism. Anderson was quickly smitten. In 2013, when she was elevated to Michigan’s highest professorship and got to name her chair—a kind of academic spirit animal—she styled herself the John Dewey Distinguished University Professor. “Dewey argued that the primary problems for ethics in the modern world concerned the ways society ought to be organized, rather than personal decisions of the individual,” Anderson wrote in her Stanford Encyclopedia entry. As she turned to problems in her work and her life, his thought became a crucial guide.

She is on the board of Hypatia.

Anderson’s closest contact with a firestorm came last year, when Hypatia, a feminist philosophy journal on whose board she sat, was pressured to retract an article exploring similarities between Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition and Rachel Dolezal’s identification as a black woman. The board ultimately stood by its publication, with a statement rich in Andersonian language. “The Board affirms Hypatia’s commitment to pluralist inquiry,” it read. The suggestion was that how you are, not who you are, supplies a legitimate basis for social action.

One of Anderson’s premises is that the project of fairness is more shared, across the spectrum, than many people suppose. Some years ago, she began to envisage a comprehensive history of egalitarianism. How did egalitarian ideas emerge, and how had they changed? How did they relate to ideas about the uses and abuses of state power?

“Originally, I thought, I’ll start mid-seventeenth century,” she said. “But then you realize, well, you can’t really deal with that until you deal with the Protestant radicals of the Reformation, like the Anabaptists. But the Anabaptists are harking back to early Christian egalitarian communities—so maybe I have to start looking at, like, the New Testament. Hah-hah-hah!” Eventually, Anderson ended up at the hunter-gatherers. It occurred to her that hundreds of thousands of years might be a lot to cover in one book, so she decided that it would be two books, or three. Possibly five. Regardless, it will take her a while to finish, maybe the rest of her life. But it will be her big project, the unified picture that she leaves behind.

The piece is a bit of a slog to read, to tell the truth, because it’s as much chatty personal profile as it is substantive philosophical mini-biography, but there are some interesting ideas to dig out.

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