Egalitarianism Research Paper

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The ideal of equality holds obvious fascination for human beings in an obviously complex and unjust world. The goal of egalitarianism is to achieve in theory and policy a specific framework of sociopolitical arrangement that will bring about the elimination of socioeconomic inequalities.

The foundation of such a goal is the ideal of an equal moral worth that demands that humans be treated equally except that there is an overriding justification for allowing inequalities. This entry will address two specific objectives. The first will be to clarify the concept of egalitarianism and the ideal of equality that it champions. This is critical because egalitarianism presents a bewildering array of terms, concepts, arguments, and assumptions that are not always obvious to anyone interested in understanding the theory. The second objective of the entry is to sketch the implication of the egalitarian argument for an ethical consideration of human well-being and improved quality of life for human beings. Egalitarianism is significant because it provides the moral framework that links the personal and the political spheres in a manner that invigorates policies on healthcare, education, employment opportunities, and so on.


Egalitarianism is a philosophical theory that rests on the claim that human beings have some sort of fundamental worth and hence should all be treated as equal. However, to push home this claim, egalitarians need to confront two contradictory truisms: that all humans are equal and that they are also unequal. The fact of human equality is taken to derive from the natural observation that all human beings share the quality of being human and as such have intrinsic value. On the other hand, the fact of inequality derives from two sources. The first are the natural endowments, talents, capacities, limitations, vices, and circumstances that characterize our existence in the world. The second involves those different and unequal social advantages and disadvantages that humans are born into as members of the human society. It is in this sense that the fact of poverty and the economic differences between the haves and the have-nots constitute a real issue for egalitarians. Thus, while it seems axiomatic that no human being is, in moral status, qualitatively different from other human beings, the obvious conclusion also seems inescapable that no human beings are equal. For Kekes,

Human beings differ in their characters, circumstances, talents and weaknesses, capacities and incapacities, virtues and vices; in their moral standing, political view, religious convictions, aesthetic preferences , and personal projects; in how reasonable and unreasonable they are, how well or badly they developed their native endowments, how much they benefit or harm others, how hardworking or disciplined they were in the past and are likely to be in the future; and so forth. (Kekes 2003, pp. 1–2)

At a first level therefore, the egalitarian project is an attempt to come to terms with these two seemingly contradictory facts in a philosophically, morally, and politically sound manner that will serve as the basis for making the concept of equality the basis for sociopolitical arrangements and policy considerations. Now, if equality is something accepted by all at some levels – equality before the law, democratic equality to vote, equal basis for accessing healthcare, and public education – at what point does egalitarianism become too difficult for other non-egalitarian normative theorists to accept? What is egalitarianism itself? What is equality? What is its political and moral value? What makes it morally desirable? What makes inequalities odious to the egalitarians? What are the non-egalitarian arguments against egalitarianism? What makes inequalities inescapable for non-egalitarians? What makes equality unacceptable to the non-egalitarians?

The idea of egalitarianism belongs originally in moral philosophy. But ethics has taken its rightful place in the multidisciplinary interrogation of the life sciences – biology, medicine, neuroscience, biomedical science, health sciences, environmental science, and so on. The field of bioethics captures the plethora of ethical issues generated by the policies, researches, and advancements in the life sciences. Egalitarianism in this sense, rather than addressing the abstract issue of the role of the ideal of equality in the society, is concerned with generating debate about what constitutes an equitable distribution of resources, especially with regard to healthcare and other medical concerns that affect the quality of life of the individual.

Background History

The affirmation of the natural inequality of humans has always been taken for granted. For the Greeks, human beings are fundamentally and innately so different that they are locked into different personalities and ways of life. This perspective automatically dictates the appropriate manner in which men of unequal status ought to be treated within the context of social relations. For instance, Pythagoras is reputed to have initiated the distinction into different ways of life (different personalities or the bioi) when he coined the neologism, the philosopher. This distinction (the same bioi in bioethics) requires that the society take note of a person’s station in life and determine how such a person ought to receive treatment that would not make him or her worse off than others.

For the Greeks, the idea of equality of every citizen is a feature derived not from nature but from the political condition of the polis which serves as the artificial institutional framework for ensuring the equality of citizens who were born unequal. But the artificial framework which the polis provided still did not equalize the slaves, the women, and the strangers. This general perspective was essentially qualified by the Stoics who presented the first egalitarian framework. For them, all humans are equal because they share in the reason by which the law of nature is ordered and in terms of the capacity for virtue which is also derived from that reason. Thus, for the Stoics, “it was the distinguishing mark of man that he was gifted with Reason. This set him apart from all animals; but in this all men, as men, were alike, and equal. To be a man was by definition to be so endowed: no question arose of more or less, better or worse” (Brown 1991, p. 22).

The anti-egalitarian current of the Middle Ages also struggled with the egalitarianism embedded in Judaism and New Testament Christianity. The medieval view of inequality was sustained around the notion of the society as an organic framework that is sustained by its individual parts ordered into hierarchies that would make the society function by means of cooperation. This hierarchy has a theological basis: Government – divine and secular – became necessary to monitor and restrict the sinful propensities of fallen man. While the New Testament doctrine of “the equality of all souls before God” constitutes an egalitarian strain similar to the Stoic’s, it actually did not distort the anti-egalitarian posture of the medieval society because it was limited to the Christian fold; it failed to challenge the incidence of inequality in the secular society.

Egalitarianism that had its first tentative expression in Stoic philosophy became much more significant as a philosophical position with the arrival of the modern period. Its stimulation is derived from the robust development of the theory of natural law and natural right. By the seventeenth century, scholars and philosophers were beginning to challenge the medieval idea of society which was thought to be founded on divine decree. In fact, for the social contract theorists – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – legitimate government authority is derived from the voluntary contract of natural equals. Critical differences among humans, as the argument goes, are not natural; it is only due to social and environmental dynamics. Rousseau, for instance, would argue that nature created all men equally with unlimited potentials. It is the society that distorts this potentiality. The zenith of this egalitarian resurgence was the American and the French Revolutions. For modern egalitarians, natural or moral equality is a given; only inequality needs justification.

The Nature And Meaning Of Egalitarianism

Equality – like justice, public, globalization, freedom, culture, democracy, modernity, politics, etc. – is an essentially contested concept that requires explicit explanations that will locate the core of the egalitarian arguments and assumptions. The idea of equality stands as the central ideal of egalitarianism. For instance, the idea of equality is taken as a long-standing, and almost self-evident, answer to the question of how benefits and burdens should be distributed between people in a society. The essential contestability of a concept like equality simply implies that one can never hope for any form of universal assent or agreement in determining the meaning of the concept. Egalitarianism is therefore a theory that attempts to prove the significance of the value of equality as well as an attempt at regulating its conceptual boundaries as an answer to some of the basic social and political challenges that assail the human society. Egalitarianism, in summary, is the belief in the idea and ideal of equality. For the egalitarians, the cause of justice in the human society is served if and only if certain goods – welfare, income, resources, wealth, opportunity, and so on – are provided in equal or nearly equal measure to all.

What makes egalitarianism however highly problematic as a theory is not only that it has at its center a conception of equality that goes deeper than what other normative political theories are ready to admit, but such a concept of equality is conceptually too confusing to mean just one thing. For instance, it is so easy to characterize egalitarianism, as Isaiah Berlin did, as an advocacy for a radical or absolute understanding of equality. For Berlin, this extreme idea of equality is .. .the ideal of complete social equality [which] embodies the wish that everything and everybody should be as similar as possible to everything and everybody else. .. .the demands for human equality which have been expressed both by philosophers and by men of action can best be represented as modifications of this absolute and perhaps absurd ideal (1955, p. 301).

And since, for him, all demands for equality can be demonstrated to be some specific modifications of this absolute ideal, then egalitarianism itself “will tend to wish so to condition human beings that the highest degree of equality of natural properties is achieved, the greatest degree of mental and physical, that is to say, total uniformity” (Berlin 1955, p. 301).

With this kind of conceptual ambiguity, it becomes clear why egalitarianism itself has become an elusive concept. Several definitions of the concept attest to this:

  • “Egalitarianism is the position that equality is central to justice” Gordon (n.d.).
  • Egalitarianism’s ideal is “a condition of equal well-being for all persons at the highest possible level of well-being, i.e. maximum equal well-being” (Landesman 1983, p. 27).
  • Egalitarianism is “the view that justice requires that we attempt to bring it about that everyone has an equal (or, more nearly equal) and positive (non-zero) amount of some good [ – welfare, income, opportunity, wealth, resources – ] that is not just formal” (Narveson 2002, p. 49).
  • “An egalitarian [is] one who maintains that people ought to be treated as equals – as possessing equal fundamental worth and dignity and as equally morally considerable” (Arneson 2013).
  • Egalitarianism refers to a “class of distributive principles, which claims that individuals should have equal quantities of well-being or morally relevant factors that affect their lives” (Hirose 2014, p. 1).

The idea of equality simultaneously binds these definitions together and makes egalitarianism implicitly elusive. In other words, the idea of equality can be seen as a trans-conceptual concept because its significance is concurrent and intersects other critical ideas like liberty, rights, property, and justice. Thus, its career and meaning are bound to many disciplinary matrixes and attached to so many other concepts in a manner that begs understanding. Before the contemporary egalitarian movement, equality has had some of its strongest historical moments, first, in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Second, in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Thus, when the French revolutionaries raised the banner under the inscription “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood), they were unwittingly giving a strong political support to a serious intellectual discourse that would outlive the revolution. In spite of its historical manifestations, equality has remained a philosophical, moral, and political challenge.

Equality’s protean nature implies that understanding its many and often contradictory connotations comes at a very steep price; a price that egalitarians are fully paying at the conceptual level. The confusion that attends its precise meaning is further aggravated, in the egalitarian debate, by more queries: What is the relationship between equality and justice? What are the material requirements for measuring equality? To whom can equality be properly applied? What role does equality play in a comprehensive theory of justice? An attempt at clarifying the concept must therefore begin with an understanding of its character. Equality is a term of comparison that does not, in any way, instantiate identity. According to Gosepath, “Equality” (or “equal”) signifies correspondence between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect, but not all respects, i.e., regarding one specific feature, with differences in other features. “Equality” needs to thus be distinguished from “identity”– this concept signifying that one and the same object corresponds to itself in all its features: an object that can be referred to through various individual terms, proper names, or descriptions. For the same reason, it needs to be distinguished from “similarity”– the concept of merely approximate correspondence.. .. Thus, to say e.g. that men are equal is not to say that they are identical. Equality implies similarity rather than “sameness” (Gosepath 2011).

In this sense, therefore, equality already presupposes a difference between the objects that are being compared. If there is no difference between them, then we can talk of identity and not equality. The comparison which equality presupposes could either be descriptive if it achieves a straightforward comparative standard or prescriptive if it imports into the comparison a normative standard.

By logical implication, the concept of equality also implies that the two objects under comparison must be compared with respect to some kind of quality. This makes it a sort of tripartite relation between two objects and some qualities. It is then this quality that determines the basis for the comparison of the two objects. For instance, at a general level, equality may mean, on the one hand, the affirmation that nature has made all human beings the same and equal in terms of their natural endowments and talents. On the other hand, it could also mean the claim that though human beings have specific natural endowments and talents that make them unequal, nevertheless, they are all equal by the fact of their humanity which confers a similar moral status. Inequality therefore implies that human beings exhibit significant differences in terms of intelligence, physique, race, character, gender, circumstances, capacities, and so on.

Further characterization of equality is possible. Apart from being a standard for comparison, equality is also distributive in the sense that it is concerned with how the state can achieve an equitable allocation of burden and benefits among the various segments that constitute the society. Equality is holistic because it is an attempt to come to terms with inequalities and equal distribution within the whole constituents of the society – white and black, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, etc. In spite of the reference to groups, equality is essentially individualistic because individuals are the proper focus of moral deliberations (see, for instance, Holtug and Lippert-Rasmussen’s discussion of this distinction between group and individual; 2007). Of course, there are ongoing debates about the propriety of applying the rights discourse to groups, for instance, in liberal societies; yet, individuals are still the primary concerns. Lastly, the concept is essentially complex since judgment of inequality and equality is determinable only after several relevant factors have been considered. For instance, what ought to be the relationship between equality and other values – freedom and justice, for instance? Should equality be taken on the basis of universality or comparability or impartiality? Should the equality be social, political, or legal?

There are three broad senses in which equality has been used in the context of the debates about its meaning. The first is as a characterization of specific manifestation of human existence in the society. In other words, it is used to affirm the claim that human beings are equal, say, in strength. The second broad sense of the use of equality is as a principle of action that insists that human persons should be treated as having equal moral worth. The third sense takes equality to approximate some set of desirable social conditions that ought to underlie social and political arrangement. This could include, say, equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process or equal distribution of income.

Harold Laski then attempts a summary of what equality means at a general level:

It means that my realisation of my best self must involve as its logical result the realisation by others of their best selves. It means such an ordering of social forces as will balance a share in the toil of living with a share of its gain also. It means that my share in that gain must be adequate for the purpose of citizenship. It implies that even if my voice be weighed as less weighty than that of another, it must yet receive consideration in the decisions that are made. The meaning, ultimately, of equality surely lies in the fact that the very differences in the nature of men require mechanism for the expression of their wills that give to each its due hearing (1951, p. 153).

This general perspective will yield two sides to the meaning of equality. On the positive side, equality translates into specific socioeconomic and political arrangements that will ensure the provision of adequate opportunities for all. On the negative side, equality implies the continual shrinking of inequalities deriving from undue privileges and advantages.

In spite of this straightforward characterization, it is still not clear in what sense two humans are said to be equal, not minding the plethora of difference between them. And since egalitarians insist on a deeper meaning of equality that goes beyond what other normative political theorists want to accept, one is treated to all manner of different conceptual frameworks in the definitions and types of egalitarianism. These include:

Liberal egalitarianism: This is a combination of a liberal and an egalitarian commitment to equality. On the one hand, it is the principle of moral individualism anchored on the availability of certain core freedoms and liberties including freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality of race, the right to vote and be voted for, the right to stand as an equal of others before the law, etc. On the other hand, it is the advocacy of equal consideration in socioeconomic matters, especially in the distribution of resources and opportunities. Justice requires, for the liberal egalitarians, that economic inequalities in the society must be reduced to the barest minimum. John Rawls, for instance, would be committed to the claim that while any inequality based on the arbitrary factors of religion, sex, ethnicity, and race must be rejected, some other inequalities, justified on the basis of liberty and rights, desert, necessity, and general welfare, can be allowed. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls however outlines certain conditions which can justify these inequalities. One of these is that there must be a minimum welfare level beyond which the worse off in the society must not fall. And the society must provide sufficient equality of opportunity for everyone to advance to privileged positions.

Analytical egalitarianism: As opposed to substantive egalitarianism which is the general view that people should be treated on the basis of equality, analytical egalitarians – especially Sandra Peart and David Levy – begin from a methodological framework of equality. In other words, for them, sociopolitical considerations should strategically be based on the assumption that people are homogeneous, rather than asserting that they really are. In making policies about healthcare, for instance, the analytical egalitarians would insist that it is best if we act as if everyone is equal. When policies are made based on the assumption of inherent inequalities, then trouble begins.

Luck egalitarianism: This brand of egalitarianism argues that natural attributes, talents, and endowments which a person possesses are essentially a matter of arbitrary luck and hence are not relevant in the considerations of an agent’s entitlement within the society. However such endowments become morally significant, from the perspective of justice, if they have the capacity to affect the agent’s life prospects vis-à-vis other agents in the society. G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin are luck egalitarians. For Dworkin, for instance, the objective of the luck egalitarian is to try as much as possible the effect of luck on the social distribution of goods and resources among people. In “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Cohen argues that the primary egalitarian goal is to undermine the influence of exploitation and bad luck on distribution. For him, “A person is exploited when unfair advantage is taken of him, and he suffers from (bad) brute luck when his bad luck is not the result of a gamble or risk which he could have avoided” (2011, p. 5).

Telic/deontic egalitarianism: Egalitarianism can also be characterized from the perspective of whether it is instrumental or non-instrumental. Telic egalitarians hold a non-instrumental view that values the idea of equality intrinsically. In other words, for them that some people are worse off than others is a situation that is intrinsically bad in itself. And so, the claim for equality will always be a good claim even if no one benefits from it. Deontic egalitarians hold an instrumental view: Equality is only a meaningful concept because it constitutes a means to some other moral ends like justice or solidarity. Thus, that some people are worse off than some others is not bad but unjust.

Non-intrinsic egalitarianism: This version derives from a disagreement with the telic-deontic distinction. It rejects the deontic description because egalitarianism need not appeal to other non-egalitarian moral reasons, and it rejects the telic description because its reference to the intrinsic nature of equality is too pure to recognize other egalitarian values. On the contrary, the non-intrinsic version argues that equality is valuable because it achieves states of affairs that are in themselves intrinsically valuable with reference to egalitarian reasons. For example, according to Martin O’Neill, inequality creates certain features: (a) servility and deferential behavior, (b) objectionable relation of power and domination, (c) the weakening of self-respect of the worse offs, (d) stigmatizing differences in status, and (e) the undermining of healthy fraternal social relations (O’Neill 2008, p. 126). Undermining these features of inequality therefore leads to the generation of specific states of affairs which are what is intrinsically good in themselves. This implies that it is not the value of equality that is intrinsically good but the states of affairs it generates.

Conditional egalitarianism: For these egalitarians, the value of equality is intrinsic but conditional on other values. This implies that equality can be taken to have a non-instrumental value only if it benefits some people. Thus, contrary to the telic egalitarian, we cannot hold the position that equality is intrinsically good even if it benefits nobody; with conditional egalitarianism, equality is still intrinsically a good value even though it must benefit some people. Andrew Mason holds this view in his essay “Egalitarianism and the Levelling Down Objection” (2001).

Constitutive egalitarianism: In this framework, equality is taken as having a constitutive value in the sense that its intrinsic value derives not from itself, but from being a part of a larger framework that has intrinsic value itself. This framework makes equality non-instrumental. Thus, if we take justice as an intrinsic good, and part of what makes a social system a just one is that persons must have an equal claim to some goods, then equality can be taken to be a constitutive component of justice.

Pluralistic egalitarianism: The plural understanding of egalitarianism reacts to prioritarianism. It claims that the sphere of egalitarianism can accommodate several principles apart from that of equality. The integration of the principle of liberty or of autonomy, for instance, would not hurt the claim of, say, the liberal egalitarian. Michael Walzer defends such a view in Spheres of Justice (1983).

Domestic egalitarianism: This type of egalitarianism believes that the demands of justice have not been adequately served until the requirements of equality have been extended throughout the society to all compatriots. For domestic or social egalitarians, the distribution of wealth, income, welfare, opportunities, rights, power, and so on is only morally significant if distributed equally among the citizens of a nation-state.

Global egalitarianism: This position is an attempt to elevate egalitarianism into a serious global theory especially with regard to the requirements of social justice across national and regional borders. The global egalitarian argues that the principle of the equality of well-being becomes a morally significant one for egalitarians only to the extent that it is taken beyond the confines of a nation-state and generalized to apply to all human beings everywhere on the planet, irrespective of territorial and national differences.

We made the point earlier that while most normative political philosophers are willing to accept some forms of formal equality as being necessary for ordering the human society, they are not willing to agree with the egalitarians’ conception of what equality means beyond its formal senses. Equality, for the egalitarians, means that everyone must be equally and substantively well off. The anti-egalitarian view which rejects this conception of equality is regarded as non-egalitarianism.

Non-egalitarianism: This refers to a range of views and perspectives that reject the egalitarian arguments for equality. The non-egalitarian view argues that there are natural and justifiable inequalities, especially on the basis of race, intelligence, ethnicity, and gender that cannot be eliminated in favor of the equality argument. The value of equality, for non-egalitarians, is only formal in the sense that (a) all people must be treated with disinterested fairness (the rule of impartiality) and (b) rules and principles must have a universal application (the rule of universality). Beyond this, equality makes no sense. For instance, Karl Marx can be regarded as a non-egalitarian in this sense but with a huge caveat. The equal right that Marx advocates reads more like a species of the formal right which most non-egalitarians are willing to accept. And it should be noted that Marx rejects all kinds of normative reflection, especially the description of equal right as a moral right. On the other hand, Robert Nozick is a thoroughgoing non-egalitarian. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), he deploys the Lockean rights argument as the basis for his non-egalitarianism. According to John Locke, every individual has equal basic natural rights which individuals hold independent of other factors like subjective opinions or institutional frameworks or cultural affiliations. In this sense, for Locke, each individual has the right to do whatsoever with whatever he/she owns legitimately as long as such an individual does not infringe on the rights of others not to be harmed. Within this Lockean proviso, Nozick queries the appropriateness of what has been called the ethics of distribution which motivates egalitarianism. There cannot be anything to distribute since, within the Lockean proviso, individuals already have some kinds of special claims to the goods we intend to distribute. Apart from utilitarianism and libertarianism, prioritarianism constitutes another prominent non-egalitarian theory.

Prioritarianism: The prioritarian rejects the egalitarian claim that equality is a central value in justice. This is because, he/she argues, the boundary of justice is too complex to be circumscribed by the idea of equality alone. The prioritarian is therefore concerned with how people fare with regard to these absolute values, rather than comparably with one another. In other words, justice in most cases requires paying a significant attention to priority, rather than equality. For instance, when confronted with an issue like poverty, transforming a person from a position of being worse off to being better off does not really require an equalitarian comparative framework. Rather, all one needs to do is focus attention on standards of well-being which any particular individual has achieved or has not. For any individual therefore, transfer of resources becomes morally important to the extent that the redistribution will promote some sort of incremental gain of well-being.

Derek Parfit is a prioritarian. The prioritarian argument is that we can achieve the egalitarian conclusion without assuming the value of equality. As Parfit puts it, the priority view is that “we have stronger reasons to benefit people the worse off these people are” (2012, p. 401). Consider Thomas Nagel’s egalitarian example: I have two children, Aa and Bb. Aa is healthy and happy; Bb is sickly and handicapped. I have the choice of whether moving to the city where Bb could receive treatment or move to the suburb where

Aa could get special education. For Nagel, to make it a case for the claim of equality, we should suppose that the gain for Aa is substantially greater than the gain Bb would get if moved to the city. On the egalitarian account, moving to the city would be more appealing than taking Aa to the suburb, even though the benefit the child would derive is less than what Aa would gain. Bb is originally worse off, but the decision would make him better off. Parfit disagrees. On prioritarian ground, we ought to give priority to those who are badly or worse off, but not on the basis of attempting to level off with those who are better off. It is more urgent to help the worse off.

Why Equality? Equality Of What? Egalitarianism And The Intentionality Of Equality

When it is claimed that two persons are equal, what does the claim imply? It is quite easy for everyone to agree that equality simply presumes universality or impartiality. Equality as universality holds that a principle must be applied to all persons across cultures and genders and territories. To follow Aristotle’s dictum, every likes must be treated alike. If one says, “stealing is wrong,” that rule has universal application if it is meant to apply to everyone who can be held morally responsible. Equality as impartiality simply requires that we do not single out some individual or groups for partial treatment that favors or disfavors them over others. Everyone becomes equal to the extent that everyone is treated with fairness.

As we have earlier pointed out, egalitarians would not have any problem agreeing with the principles of universality and impartiality. The real predicament for them is that the value of equality goes beyond these principles. In this sense, equality goes deeper; it involves comparability: This concerns not how people fare on their own terms but how they are assessed relative to others. Thus, when compared to one another, the egalitarian argues that “all men are equal.” That statement is meant as a prescription rather than a description of the state of affairs in human society.

Of course, the state of affairs depicts gross inequalities. The egalitarian prescription therefore is in favor of the principle of equal consideration: All men ought to be treated equally until one can justify why the difference between them really counts as a basis for discrimination. Equal consideration presumes moral equality.

The idea of moral equality is backstopped by the assumption that human beings constitute a special kind of being – as different from the animals – of whom rationality can be predicated. This implies that apart from the argument that, in their natural state, human beings are created equal in respect to their possession of reason, it also means that such beings require at all times the justification of the social inequalities in as much as they are not natural. And the best moral standpoint from which the justification can proceed is to assume that we are all morally equal outside of any differences. Egalitarians direct the presumption of moral equality against some serious and specific inequalities in sociopolitical and economic arrangements in the society.

What makes these social inequalities wrong, from an egalitarian perspective? In the first place, inequalities resulting from natural or social differences can become morally significant in the sense that they come to affect a person’s life chances and well-being. There are four categories of difference that motivate social inequalities:

  • Natural endowment: Intelligence, beauty, genetic composition, natural capacities/incapacities, character, talents and weaknesses, health, race/ethnicity, etc.
  • Social endowment: Family background, class, social status, education, gender, political or religious views, social entitlements, etc.
  • Brute bad luck: Accident, disabilities, disasters, diseases, etc.
  • Predictable bad luck arising from deliberate choices like gambling, laziness, investment choices, etc.

For instance, luck egalitarians argue that since luck is a chance event that occurs outside of a person’s control, it need not become a significant issue from the perspective of social arrangement – unless such luck affects a person’s well-being.

To return to the presumption of moral equality, egalitarians argue that it becomes unfair if people are discriminated against on the basis of endowments, talents, incapacities, and limitations beyond their control. What makes any particular framework of inequalities acceptable to egalitarians is the idea of choice. In this context, therefore, “Egalitarians generally believe that it is bad for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. This is because, typically, if one person is worse off than another through no fault or choice of her own, the situation seems comparatively unfair, and, hence, the inequality will be objectionable” (Temkin 2003, p. 767).

Contrary to the supposition, à la Berlin, that all egalitarians hold unto an extreme conception of equality, most egalitarians are concerned with undeserved, rather than all, forms of inequalities. An inequality is deserved if it is the consequence of predictable bad luck like gambling away one’s inheritance or making a bad investment or being undisciplined in spending and so on. But if social inequality derives from the first three categories above, then egalitarians consider it undeserved and hence unfair. Egalitarianism is thus concerned with combating inequalities as differences that cannot be justified in sociopolitical and economic arrangements of the society.

The first level of argument for the egalitarians is to answer what has been called the “why equality” question. The question concerns why equality is a significant value and whether its value can be justified by hitching it to the concept of justice in the sociopolitical and economic arrangements of the society. The usual strategy for egalitarians is to claim that equality is essentially a principle of justice. In other words, any social situation that makes it possible for some to be worse off than others due to no fault of theirs is intrinsically unjust and hence contradicts the value of equality. Thus, how much any person should receive in terms of any valuable goods in the society is comparatively relative to what other persons can receive too.

To achieve the equality-as-justice paradigm, egalitarianism is usually taken to require what has been called the “leveling down argument.” This leveling down process, as Harold Laski calls it, “means that no man shall be so placed in society that he can overreach his neighbor to the extent which constitutes a denial of the latter’s citizenship” (1951, p. 153). The leveling down argument is meant to ensure that society distributes its significant goods in such a manner that will repudiate indefensible inequalities and achieve some sort of equalization of conditions. What does leveling down demand? It is an egalitarian desire that will ensure a transformation from a state of inequality to another that is better off and hence more equal. Take a famous example: The egalitarian desire will be served if those who have sight are blinded in order to achieve sightlessness as an equalizing condition. The context of sightlessness would be an improvement on the earlier situation when some are blind and others are sighted.

The leveling down argument will hurt egalitarianism because it implies the need to achieve equality for its own sake, no matter the fallout of the rearrangement. If natural disasters were to wipe out the investment of the rich in a way that leaves them as worse off as the poor, that will be egalitarian! The egalitarian may however respond that what he/she actually seeks is a positive situation that makes people better off than they were before. Thus, for instance, the egalitarian objective is still served if those who are blind have their sight restored, rather than blinding the rest of the population. The non-egalitarians use the leveling down objection to argue that equality itself is not enough; in fact, it is considered just a by-product of some other significantly absolute values like human dignity that are enough for the sake of justice. Prioritarians would argue that “in cases of people’s hunger and illness or deficiency of goods they should be helped because hunger, illness, and deficiency of goods are terrible circumstances for every human being and not because other people are in a better condition. The hunger and illness of other people or the deficiency of goods directly put us in the situation to help these people without making any comparison between them and those people who are better off” Gordon (n.d.).

Beyond the “why equality” debate is the “equality of what” debate. The debate concerns the question of what egalitarians want to equalize, if it is granted that the argument for the presumption of equality is sound. In a defining 1979 essay titled “Equality of What?” (Sen 1979). Amartya Sen provides a useful theoretical framework that broadens the conceptual boundary for understanding what egalitarianism is all about. With this question, intentionality enters the discourse about equality. Intentionality, in philosophy, refers to the inherent aboutness or directedness of consciousness to something outside of it. In other words, when a person is conscious, he/she is always conscious of something. Equality, in this sense, therefore becomes equality about something. Intentionality therefore directs one’s focus to the specific kind of material inequalities that galls the egalitarian.

The distribution of material goods and factors – income, wealth, education, primary goods, resources, capabilities, rights, welfare, healthcare, political power – is affected by the manner in which sociopolitical institutions are processed and are skewed in favor of those with natural and social advantages. Egalitarians therefore want to achieve a level of material equality within which these material goods and the material conditions of people in the society would be equalized while leaving only defensible inequalities intact. It is at the level of material equality that egalitarianism reaches its most controversial point. Egalitarians propose three basic redistribution principles that, it is hoped, will lead to an egalitarian state of affairs in the society.

The first principle is equal access, or formal equality of opportunity. Formal equality simply states a formal truth: like cases should be treated alike (though there is no indication as to how unlike cases ought to be treated). Equal access therefore states that any position in the society that has the possibility of conferring advantages on the holder of the positions should be made accessible to everybody. Access in this case should be the function of relevant qualifications, rather than natural or social endowments including ethnicity, race, disability, sexuality, circumstances, economic class, political belief, religious creed, and so on. Inequality results from any social or political barrier that hinders any particular group or individual from accessing such positions. Yet, equal access must also be subject to the presumption of equality in the sense that unequal access may be justified in some cases.

The second principle is equal opportunity. This principle is more radical than equality of access because it demands that the state should do more than making access open to all; it must equalize the opportunities that make a group or individuals qualify for advantageous positions in the first place. Education provides a classic instance of how the state can begin to come to grip with the equalization of opportunity. This will involve providing appropriate educational framework and context that does not exclude any. On second thought, however, a closer scrutiny of this requirement reveals a problem: While it may be possible to equalize the formal context of educational achievements, it becomes a moot point as to how the weight of parental guidance and socialization that provides micro-opportunities – encouragement, self-esteem, healthy lifestyle, discipline, social network, extra classes, etc. – for a particular child beyond the formal opportunities of the state can be equalized. In the final analysis, equal opportunity achieves something a step short of what egalitarians desire.

The third principle is equal outcomes. Equalizing the outcomes of people’s efforts is the most incoherent and controversial of egalitarian principles. This is because it unfairly denies the differences that could have resulted as the outcome of individuals’ choices. If individual A decides to be hardworking and frugal, and individual B lives an extravagant life, it would be against the principle of justice to equalize the expected outcome that should result from their different choices.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach is an attempt at shifting the egalitarian distribution matrix away from basic goods and resources to something else. The resource approach, according to the objection, fails to attend to the crucial issue of how the individual can value and ultimately gain from these resources, rather than the mere issue of just equalizing them. In other words, “the value goods have for someone depends on objective possibilities, the natural environment, and individual capacities” (Gosepath 2011). Equality of capabilities therefore explores the possibility of orienting material equality around the capacities that a person has to achieve “functionings” that constitute the person’s individual well-being. These functionings have to do with a person’s possession of the basic conditions of social flourishing like biosocial needs of food, clothing, and shelter, human dignity, cultural identity, selfesteem, and, ultimately, the freedom to choose the particular combination of conditions that will guarantee one’s well-being.

The Non-Egalitarian Challenge

Non-egalitarianism questions the claim that inequality of itself is troubling and bad. For non-egalitarians, equality is a morally neutral concept. As such, equality does not play any significant role in human affairs. Here, equality is contrasted to justice in the sense that, for the non-egalitarians, the insistence to reduce inequality may undermine some significant values of justice. Contrary to the egalitarian argument that it is only justified inequalities that are defensible, non-egalitarians countered that inequality itself is basic and natural to humans. If inequalities become a serious moral threat, then one need only appeal to non-egalitarian but just principles, rather than equality.

Libertarianism and utilitarianism constitute two major non-egalitarian theories (with regard to utilitarianism, this view may be qualified to the extent that it may be difficult to find a pure utilitarian who refuses to accept the possibility of any other value except utility as the basis for distribution). Libertarianism is founded on the presumption of liberty as the most fundamental of social values. If this is correct, then there is a limit to which the state or society can coerce an individual beyond what the individual autonomously wills for himself or herself. Libertarians insist that individuals are free to live out their lives according to their own autonomous choices and that no individual is thus free to compel others not to live according to their own choices. With regard to distributive justice, libertarianism argues that any framework of redistribution, like egalitarianism, infringes on the individual’s natural right to liberty and self-ownership (the ownership of oneself, one’s body, and one’s self-effort). On the other hand, utilitarianism is a moral theory that insists that all values are morally relevant only in virtue of their being assessed in terms of their utility. Utility would imply the extent to which these values produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The utilitarians would argue against the incentive to equality in the sense that such a value would be contrary to the principle of efficiency by which everyone is motivated by the fact of inequality to develop significant skills that would elevate their chances in life. The effect of inequality would be justified, therefore, because it is conducive for sustaining an overall happiness and welfare than equality.

The non-egalitarian challenge to the egalitarian presumption of equality and its distributive principles occurs at the two levels where egalitarianism has received the most elaboration: the why equality and equality of what contexts. At the first level, as earlier noted, non-egalitarians reject the claim that equality is foundational to the idea of justice. The point here is that the idea of justice need not be conceived in the egalitarian comparative terms. The basic argument of the non-egalitarians is that if equality is valuable at all, it would be as an instrumental, non-intrinsic by-product of other significant values with which it must necessarily conflict if considered foundational. The principles of priority and sufficiency, for instance, constitute alternative explanation on what justice requires in human affairs. Both share a perspective that elevates the immediate predicament of humanity over the demand of comparative equality.

What is important within the context of justice is whether or not people live good lives, rather than the issue of how an individual’s life compares with another’s. The non-egalitarians would therefore prefer to elaborate on the universal implications of humanitarianism on the issue of poverty and suffering, rather than dwelling on the supposed relational difference among people. A sufficientarian non-egalitarian rebuttal therefore maintains that what is important from the perspective of justice is essentially that people should have enough of what would make their lives better. A third alternative and non-egalitarian explanation favors distribution based on merit or desert. What justice demands in the distribution of basic goods is that those goods be distributed in proportion to the merit of those deserving them.

A final non-egalitarian challenge is leveled at the perception of human nature that undergird the egalitarian presumption of equality and the sociopolitical arrangement that ought to follow from it. This perspective has a long ancestry dating to Rousseau who sees man as a good creature naturally predisposed to peace and order. This implies that such naturally good creatures would be predisposed to certain good sociopolitical arrangement that would, in the final analysis, strengthen their natural inclinations. Egalitarianism, in this sense, becomes a theoretical attempt at returning humans to their natural tendencies in a society that has corrupted them through bad political arrangements. The first worry this explanation excites is that there are people who become evil and corrupt even under good political arrangements. Does that not suggest that humanity is equally predisposed to both evil and good and that egalitarian sociopolitical rearrangement and redistribution is not enough to close the matter? Therefore, if the picture of human nature which motivates the value of equality is illusory, should that not affect the way we perceive inequalities and deal with them?


Egalitarianism projects an ideal. Its objective is to make the human society as better and just as it can be. And its starting point is the belief that all human beings are naturally equal. This implies essentially that it is the fact of inequality that requires justification. For egalitarians, humans should be treated equally unless there is a justified reason for treating them unequally. The presumption of equal consideration then requires that basic goods – education, wealth, healthcare, power, etc. – be distributed equally in a manner that would not endanger other relevant values.

The manifestations of systemic and structural inequalities in many societies constitute a moral weight against humans’ collective political ingenuity. In spite of the weight of non-egalitarian disapproval, egalitarian arguments are attempts to push the human society into a deep and constant rethinking of the social frameworks and dynamics. Even if human beings are not natural equals, are not inequalities across individuals, societies, and nations moral evils that should be mitigated? Whatever a person’s theoretical or policy inclination, the egalitarian desire for equality cannot be wished away no matter its conceptual and policy difficulties.

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