UCL Faculty of Laws


In-Person | Honorific Titles and Social Equality: Are they Compatible?

20 February 2024, 3:00 pm–5:00 pm

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This event is organised by the UCL Institute for Laws, Politics and Philosophy (ILPP) ‘Dworkin Colloquium’

Event Information

Open to



UCL Laws


UCL Faculty of Laws
Bentham House
4-8 Endsleigh Gardens

Please note that the time allocated for this colloquia will be devoted to discussion.

Speaker: Professor George Letsas (UCL Laws)

About the Session: Honorific titles are institutional positional goods whose function is to distribute societal esteem. Unlike other states, the UK retains the use of nobility titles (such as Barons, Dukes, Earls and Marquesses), including 93 hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords. But it also awards annually merit-based honours - such as knighthoods - based on service, or achievement. Meanwhile, professional titles, such as Doctor or Professor, are used widely around the world.

Even merit-based, non-hereditary, honorific titles, however, should appear problematic for egalitarian theory. They are grounded on third-personal attitudes of esteem and admiration which, according to Stephen Darwall, cannot form the basis of moral demands against others. Moreover, honorific titles, particularly pre-nominal terms of address (e.g., Lord, Lady, Sir, Dame, Rt Hon), introduce an element of deference and hierarchy in social interactions, which is in direct tension with the value of social equality. I explore possible instrumental justifications, such as those proposed by Montesquieu and John Adams, and find them insufficient to justify an honours system as we have it.

I then argue, controversially, that certain titles can be justified on grounds of relational equality. This is the case where the title is attached to a status that pertains to asymmetrical social relations, such as doctor-patient or judge-litigant. In those cases, the function of these titles is not to distribute esteem, but to signal the heightened moral responsibility of the stronger party not to exploit the vulnerability of the weaker party.

About the Institute: The Institute brings together political and legal theorists from Law, Political Science and Philosophy and organises regular colloquia in terms 2 and 3. Read more about the Institute's work.

If you would like to be added to the ILPP mailing list please contact us at laws-events@ucl.ac.uk.

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