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So why is Rashdall wrong? Or, more precisely: if we encountered him today — perhaps protesting the felling of a statue in Charlottesville, Virginia — what would we say to him? Waldron’s book can be seen as a conversation across time with the awful Edwardian. What would Rashdall need to know, what kind of proof would he find admissible, what could he be persuaded by, to come to his senses and realise that the “higher races” aren’t higher at all?

Waldron thinks Rashdall would need to know about attributes or capacities which human beings alone have, and which therefore make Rashdall’s distinctions within the species irrational; that is, unresponsive to facts about our fellows far and wide. To that end, Waldron sets out across the difficult and well-trodden terrain in search of these capacities. It is a painstaking and impressive analysis.

The Utilitarians thought the basis for equality was the capacity to feel pain, while other thinkers, from Cicero and the Stoics to Locke, opted for reason. Humans can think and count and deliberate and remember: is that what separates them from the beasts? The towering figure of Immanuel Kant, by contrast, thought that what is distinctive about persons is their capacity for morality; they can act against particular inclinations and drives and desires. More recently, by which I mean 1860, liberals like John Stuart Mill have emphasised human beings’ ability to author their own lives. It is our autonomy that grounds human exceptionalism.

Waldron rigorously assesses the glaring problems with many of these positions. For the sake of space I paraphrase: Bambi felt pain, Forrest Gump had a low IQ; Hannibal Lecter’s conscience was questionable, and 35-year-olds who lounge about on the sofa all day in the basement of their parents’ house eating Cheerios, wearing Star Wars pyjamas and sending strangers vicious Tweets (from where, greetings) aren’t really “authoring their lives” and realising their individuality.

It’s at this point, however, that Professor Waldron falters. Having so clearly illuminated the pitfalls of taking various capacities as the basis for human equality, he nevertheless concludes we should adopt them anyway, but as a cluster. Here’s what he means:

Perhaps we should be looking for a complex account of human equality — a set of range properties, overlapping and complementing each other . . . People have moral lives of their own to lead, and they have personal lives of their own to lead, and they have rationality to deploy in the leading of their lives. These properties, these capabilities, come together in complexes and narratives; they complement and support one another. And together they help define what is important about a human being.

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