A few thoughts on equality


The greatest influence on contemporary thinking about equality is John Rawls. His 1971 book A Theory of Justice has been a springboard for other connected theories and counter theories. His ‘justice as fairness’ theory is based on the idea that everyone has an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties. In this he includes equality of opportunity. But he goes on to say that social or economic inequalities have to be justified in terms of the benefits they bring to the least advantaged. This is his famous ‘difference principle.’

EXAMPLE: Justice as fairness could take the form of needs-based grants for students.


Utilitarians argue that redistribution should not prioritize minorities but be based on what will afford the greatest good to the most people. This thinking is based on Jeremy Bentham’s idea ‘that each is to count for one, no-one more than one’. From a utilitarian point of view it doesn’t make sense for a greater number of people to give up benefits for the sake of the fewer just because the benefits to the worst-off will be greater. Utilitarianism is therefore a kind of ‘majority rule’ – even though this might be bad for minorities. Modern welfare-utilitarians such as RM Hare, however, argue that redistributing wealth reduces inequality and creates general ‘utility’ (ie happiness) by diminishing envy.

EXAMPLE: An utilitarian approach to taxation might keep it at a moderate level for the middle-income earning majority even if that meant fewer benefits for the very poor or higher taxes for the very rich.


Many people who consider themselves egalitarians are actually prioritarians. They argue that improvements in the welfare of the worst-off have priority. The individual with a more urgent claim has priority over the individual with a less urgent claim. According to philosopher Thomas Nagel: ‘What makes a system egalitarian is the priorities it gives to the claims of those whose overall life prospects put them at the bottom.’ Once the needs of these are met, then improvements can be made for the slightly better-off, and so on up the scale of privilege. Priority does not concern itself with the numbers of people benefiting or the scale of benefit.

EXAMPLE: Priority, on a global scale, could involve cancelling Third World debt and tackling Africa’s aids crisis.


For Marxists, capitalism is the enemy of equality in that it depends upon the exploitation of workers to create ‘surplus value’ or profit. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union few people believe that there is a viable socio-economic alternative to capitalism. Marxist thinkers like Gerald Cohen and Alex Callinicos reluctantly acknowledge that, for now, ‘market socialism’ offers a halfway house, which could combine collective ownership of the means of production with the market’s ‘supposed superiority to other forms in the efficient allocation of resources’. For radical thinker Philippe Van Parijs, jobs are resources to be shared equally and all should be paid, whether they have work or not.

EXAMPLE: Van Parijs proposes a universal basic income equivalent to half per-capita GDP of the country in which the citizen lives.


‘Equality of what?’ asks economist Amartya Sen. His answer involves what he calls ‘capabilities to achieve functionings’. It’s about creating conditions in which people can realize their ‘capabilities’ which will inevitably be different and have different outcomes due to diversity of human nature and experience. It involves the same basic elements, though, like: being able to live a life of a normal length; having bodily health and integrity; freedom of movement, expression and affiliation; freedom of attachment and so forth. It may involve resources, but it goes beyond them too.

EXAMPLE: A has a car while B has a bicycle. In itself, this doesn’t matter because B prefers to cycle. But it does matter if A’s car makes it impossible for B to cycle safely.


Libertarian Robert Nozick argues that there is nothing wrong with inequality. Inequality is natural, inevitable and may even be a good thing – a spur to ambition, competition and achievement. But policies to create equality are harmful: they threaten liberty and individual rights, penalize achievement and lead to a general ‘levelling down’ of society. Nozick argues for a ‘minimal state’ with no duty of equal care or concern beyond keeping law and order. Taxation, he says, is equivalent to ‘forced labour’. His ideas have been quite influential – especially in the US.

EXAMPLE: Health and education would be left to market forces, but there would be a publicly funded police and penal system. Inheritance tax would be abolished forthwith.


Iris Marion Young takes issue with the ‘abstract universalism’ that she says dogs most liberal thinking about equality. It makes assumptions that belong to the dominant group and is ‘difference blind’, failing to recognize long-term effects of oppression on groups such as women, ethnic minorities, gays and so forth. Assimilation is not the way to achieve equality, she says. Equality is best achieved among socially and culturally different groups by respecting and acknowledging each other’s differences. Young and others argue for a principle of group representation and for group-differentiated policies. Groups might be able to veto specific policies that affect them directly. Such multicultural approaches have been criticized by liberal thinkers such as Brian Barry who insist on universal egalitarian principles.

EXAMPLE: Group-differentiated policies exist in India where there are different codes of family law for Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Further reading: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, Harvard University Press, 1971. Equality and Partiality by Thomas Nagel, New York, 1991. Inequality Re-examined by Amartya Sen, Oxford University Press, 1992. Sex and Social Justice by Martha Nussbaum, Oxford University Press, 1999. Equality by Alex Callinicos, Polity, 2000. Self Ownership, Freedom and Equality by GA Cohen, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Real Freedom for All by Philippe Van Parijs, Clarendon Press, 1995. Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick, Basic Books, 1974. Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Marion Young, Princeton University Press, 1990. Culture and Equality by Brian Barry, Polity, 2001. The Ideal of Equality edited by Mathew Clayton and Andrew Williams, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Equality: Selected Readings edited by Louis J Pojman and Robert Westmoreland, Oxford University Press, 1997.