Equality, Moral and Social

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The proposition "A and B are equal" may be descriptive or normative, but in either case it is incomplete without a statement of the respects in which the objects or persons compared are deemed to be equal. In instances where this appears not to be so, either the context supplies the complement or the comparison is of pure quantities, as in pure mathematics. Two objects equal in weight, or height, or value may be unequal in other respects; apart from the abstractions of mathematics and logic, no two objects could ever be said to be equal in all respects, only in all relevant respects.

Correspondingly, to say that two candidates are equal in merit would usually mean that with respect to their performances in some understood competition or examination, they deserve to be treated alike; it does not rule out treating them differently if they are unequal in other respects. Aristotle's celebrated account of justice in Book III of the Ethics amounts to this: No distinction ought to be made between men who are equal in all respects relevant to the kind of treatment in question, even though in other (irrelevant) respects they may be unequal. On the other hand, in any matter in which they are in relevant respects unequal, they ought to be treated in proportion to their relevant inequalities.

These analytical distinctions are of considerable importance in dealing with equality as a moral and social ideal. Thomas Jefferson's claim that "all men are created equal" cannot be rebutted by pointing to the obvious fact that some are taller, stronger, or more clever than others. The claim is intelligible only as a prescription, as saying that there is some respect, at least, in which no difference ought to be made in the treatment or consideration given to all men, whatever differences there might be in their qualities and circumstances.

History of Equality as an Ideal

Plato preached the political equality of the sexes, Aristotle that of all free citizens; nevertheless, both laid more stress on not treating unequals equally than on any general conception of equality. Aristotle believed that some men were slaves by nature, Plato that some souls were not merely capable of higher development than others but more valuable on that account. The political egalitarianism of Pericles' Athens, described by Thucydides, was concerned only with the equality of Athenian citizens and excluded slaves and foreigners. The first generalized egalitarianism was that of the Stoics, who stressed the natural equality of all men as rational beings with an equal capacity for virtue: "Virtue closes the door to no man; it is open to all the freeborn, the freedman, the slave and the king neither family nor fortune determines its choiceit is satisfied with the naked human being" (Seneca).

The New Testament doctrine of the equality of all souls in the sight of God (Galatians 3:2629) is a religious expression of a similar principle: "Ye are all one in Christ Jesus." It was profoundly modified, however, by the Augustinian doctrine of election. Men were equal only in the sense that by sin all were totally, and therefore equally, unworthy; God in his mercy extended grace to some but not to others. Thomas Aquinas qualified the equality of all men in the sight of God by the doctrine that slavery is the consequence of sin. Though there are signs of a crude social egalitarianism in some of the protest movements of the later Middle Ages, such as the Lollards and the Hussites, medieval social theory was, on the whole, antiegalitarian, deeming hierarchy to be natural both to society and to the whole universal order.

Modern egalitarianism had its beginnings in the seventeenth century. It is related in part to Calvinist doctrine, which, although it admittedly drew a sharp distinction between the saved and the damned, insisted at the same time on the equality of the elect, whether clerical or lay. This view of equality came to be associated with a theory of church governmentand indirectly of secular governmentthat derived legitimate authority (i.e., the right of superiors to command inferiors) from the voluntary agreement of natural equals to submit to such of their number as they chose. These doctrines were given their first completely secular expressionassociated with theories of natural right and social contractby some of the Parliamentarians in the English civil war, particularly the Levelers. Colonel Rainborough's declaration in the General Council of the Army in 1647, that "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he" and that no one can have a duty to obey a government that "he hath not had a voice to put himself under" is a classic expression of democratic political egalitarianism.

The idea of a natural equality of all men was a dominant theme from the seventeenth century on. Thomas Hobbes took it for granted that in the state of nature men are equal in right because roughly equal in strength and cunning. John Locke argued that by nature men are equally free, are subject only to natural law, and enjoy the same natural rights. This turns the problem of political authority and obligation into a search for reasons why free and equal men should accept the limitations of civil society. Political inequality, of ruler and ruled, must be justified as a conventional device for the better safeguarding of the rights and advantages that all men already possess but cannot securely enjoy, in a state of nature.

In eighteenth-century philosophy the idea of a natural equality of rights was reinforced by a theory of human nature, as put forth by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, maintaining that all differences of character, talent, and intelligence are due to differences in environment and experience. By nature men are equal in the sense that at birth they have a limitless potentiality without natural characteristics to differentiate one from another. Consequently their diverse natures are, in fact, contingent; in principle all men are equally perfectible, given the appropriate social arrangements.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained social inequality by the pressures of a sophisticated way of life; in the state of nature men's needs are simple, none need rely on anyone but himself, so none can exploit another or make him subject. For Rousseau the key problem for social philosophy, to which the sovereignty of the general will could provide a solution, was to reconcile the natural equality and autonomy of men with the social condition and political authority. Without this reconciliation men cannot realize their potentiality as morally self-governing persons. Immanuel Kant offered a philosophically sophisticated version of a very similar moral position: All human beings must be treated as ends, not merely as means; all men are equally "legislating members of the kingdom of ends," because all are equally capable of realizing the good will, the only thing in the world good in itself.

These doctrines permeated the great revolutionary movements in America and Europe at the end of the century and were made explicit in their declarations of rights. In America the doctrine of equality was a denial that any authority imposed on unwilling subjects could be legitimate merely on grounds of law or prescription; in France l'égalité repudiated privileges of prestige and opportunity based solely on noble birth. But alongside these broad popular movements were others, such as François-Noël Babeuf's Conspiracy of the Equals, which challenged economic inequalities. Protests of this kind became increasingly important in the nineteenth century, in the evolution of socialist and communist thinking.

The target of modern egalitarianism, however, is by no means solely, or even primarily, economic inequality. Such inequality is objectionable to many socialists not so much as an unequal distribution of goods but as a source of unequal power, prestige, and regard. Other forms of differentiation have been as strongly attackedin particular, differentiation by race and color and by sex. Again, egalitarians may make very general claims, such as that in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948), that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," or they may claim, more specifically, "equality before the law" or "equality of opportunity."

This history has two noteworthy features. First, there is a recurrent theme, the idea of a universal but imprecisely defined equality; behind all differences of talents, merits, and social advantages there is some characteristically human nature by virtue of which all men are equal. Second, the focus of egalitarianism has shifted continuously, now attacking the differential treatment of barbarian and Greek, now of freeman and slave, noble and commoner, black and white, rich and poor, male and female. Egalitarianism might be said not so much to assert equality as to deny the justice of some existing inequality of treatment based on some allegedly irrelevant differences of quality or circumstance.

Universal Equality as an Ideal

The notion of universal equality as an ideal is difficult to pin down. Many egalitarians have tried to argue that despite the many points of inequality, all men are alike in possessing reason, or a soul, or some other essentially human characteristic or nature, by virtue of which they stand equal. The difficulty, however, is to find an important characteristic that all men possess in precisely the same degree, so that whatever differences their other inequalities might justify, this fundamental equality would make them equal qua men. And even if one could identify such a characteristic, what would follow from it? If all men are alike in having souls, in what respect should they therefore be treated alike? After all, God is widely believed to punish wicked souls and to reward virtuous ones.

The ideal of universal equality can often be reduced to the principle that all men ought to be equally considered. This does not mean that there is any respect in which they are all alike and by virtue of which they should all be treated alike; it is rather a principle of procedure: that all men ought to be treated equally, despite all their differences, until a case has been made for saying that some particular difference between them is relevant to the matter at hand. The onus of proof rests on whoever wants to make distinctions. And up to a point this might be said to be implicit in the notion of rational decision, because it would be irrational, within a given class of cases, to treat some differently from others if no relevant grounds could be found for distinguishing between them.

Nevertheless, the principle of equal consideration does presuppose an initial commitment or decision, for it takes for granted whose interests are to count. No one claims equal consideration for all mammalshuman beings count, mice do not, though it would not be easy to say why not. The Greeks made a similar distinction between themselves and barbarians, Aristotle between natural slaves and naturally free men, the slaves counting only as tools for the free men. It is not easy to see how anyone who seriously held that white men mattered but black did not could be reasoned out of this position, any more than one could argue for the equality of men and mice. Of course, many people who practice discrimination profess to believe that black men are in some way inferior to white, in intelligence, sensibility, responsibility, or some such quality, and on this account ought to be treated differently. But this is to admit the principle of equal consideration for all men, that all men count, and that an argument has to be made to justify discriminating against some among them. The man who denies that they count at all is not bound to show reasons, any more than we feel the need to show reasons for treating inanimate objects, plants, or primitive organisms, such as amoebas, according to our pleasure. Although we hesitate to inflict unnecessary pain on sentient creatures, such as mice or dogs, we are quite sure that we do not need to show good reasons for putting human interests before theirs. The boundaries of moral consideration are enlarged in practice by awakening sympathy and imagination; moral reasons presuppose an initial moral concern.

The principle of equal consideration may be more, therefore, than what is necessarily implied by the concept of rational action. The notion of acting with good reason does not in itself rule out any inequality of treatment, for it may always be possible to argue that there is some relevant difference between members of a given class. But the principle that all men should be treated as members of the class whose equality is procedurally presupposed is not necessarily implied by the notion of rational action.

However, to some philosophers universal equality has meant more than equal consideration for all men. John Plamenatz, for instance, has tied the notion closely to natural rights and has argued that there are some rights "so much more important than others that these others ought always, or nearly always, to be sacrificed to them, should the need arise" ("Equality of Opportunity," in Bryson et al., eds., Aspects of Human Equality, pp. 79107). The purpose of this equality of rights is to ensure equality of freedom and opportunity: "the equal right of all men to live the kind of life that seems good to them equality of opportunity to be oneself, to live as one pleases." This is attractive, but it hardly touches the problem of what is to be done when what pleases one man interferes or competes with what pleases another. Nor does it cope with the diversity of inclinationscan one be said to have, on a given income, an equal opportunity to become a collector of Picassos or of seashells? Or does equality of opportunity require differential provisions, so that the chance of fulfillment matches the aspiration? Does it envisage open competition or a handicap? Plamenatz has attached very great weight to the principle that every individual's view of where his own interests lie should be given equal consideration. He thus closely associates equality and freedom, denying both that one man's interest might legitimately be subordinated to another's and that anyone can be the proper judge of someone else's interest.

For some philosophers (D. D. Raphael and Gregory Vlastos, for example) the ideal of universal equality requires that the inequalities of nature be mitigated or rectified. By this view, precisely because men born with superior talents or social advantages can claim no merit on that account, it should be the aim of social policy to compensate for such advantages by differentiating between men to redress the balance. It is of course true that modern welfare states commonly do provide special amenities, such as wheelchairs for the crippled or hearing aids for the deaf, to bring naturally handicapped people up to some minimum standard of well-being. But an account in terms of meeting needs or deficiencies is more accurate than one in terms of rectifying inequalities, for the policy is not so much to remedy a handicap that one man suffers in comparison with another (wheelchairs are not meant to enable handicapped persons to compete in races with runners) as to provide conditions necessary to his well-being, understood in the light of some presupposed standard of what a good life requires. This standard will no doubt be governed by the advantages commonly enjoyed by most people in the community, so that in an affluent society a person will be taken to have more needs than in an impoverished one; however, the claim will still be grounded on his own needs and interests, not on the greater advantages enjoyed by those more fortunate.

Specific Egalitarian Ideals

The demand for equality is very often directed against some specific inequalities in social arrangements. It may take the form of a protest either against distinctions based on some specific ground (for example, racial equality, sexual equality) or against discriminations in a particular field (for example, equality before the law, economic equality). Each consideration necessarily involves the other; complaints of sexual inequality imply that sex is made a ground of distinction in some fields, unspecified but understood, where it is considered by the critic to be inappropriate (for example, salaries, jobs in the public service, voting rights). On the other hand, the claim to equality before the law implies that in legal relations or in relations between persons appearing before a court, some unspecified but understood difference (perhaps of sex, or of color, or of wealth) is made a ground of distinction and ought not to be.

The meaning of these ideals changes with their context. No one means by "equality before the law" that no distinctions should be legally recognized. A social system consists necessarily of different roles, such as father, son, tenant, landlord, and congressperson, each with its own appropriate qualifications and characteristic rights and duties, established and supported by law. A system is said to be unequal only if the differences in privileges are considered unjustifiable because they are irrelevantly grounded or because the qualifications for assuming a role are unduly restrictive (for instance, if a white skin is a necessary condition for voting rights). These ideals change their focus over time. "Equality before the law" in eighteenth-century France meant ending the disabilities of the members of the third estate as compared with the privileges of the nobles and clergy. Today it may mean abolishing racial disabilities, such as existed in South African law and with Jim Crow sanctions in the United States, or seeing that prejudice does not interfere with the administration of law. It may also mean eliminating the advantages of wealthy litigants over poorer ones, by public legal aid schemes, or making certain that no one is prevented by poverty from getting a fair trial (see Justice Hugo Black's opinion in Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 1956).

Equality very rarely means treating everyone alike; usually it means getting rid of one system of distinctions and replacing it with another. Thus, equality of opportunity in education hardly ever means giving everyone exactly the same education; rather, it means eliminating some hitherto determining factor such as ability to pay school or university fees and substituting a test of proficiency. More ambitiously, it might aim at a system with various arrangements, each meant for an appropriate grade of intelligence or type of aptitude. Those who call this equality do so on the ground that the treatment accorded to each is equally appropriate to his needs. Thus, R. H. Tawney argued that "the more anxiously a society endeavours to secure equality of consideration for all its members, the greater will be the differentiation of treatment which, when once the common human needs have been met, it accords to the special needs of different groups and individuals among them" (Equality, p. 39). The greater the equality of consideration, the greater the differentiation in treatment. If the latter is not called "inequality in treatment" it is because the word inequality has acquired, in this sort of context, a pejorative force; "inequalities" have come to mean indefensible differences in treatment.

See also Impartiality; Justice.


history of egalitarian ideals

Abernethy, George L., ed. The Idea of Equality. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1959. An anthology, from the Old Testament and Herodotus to the present. Contains bibliography.

Bouglé, Celestin. Les idées égalitaires. Paris: Alcan, 1899.

Lakoff, Sanford A. Equality in Political Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Locke, John. "Second Treatise on Civil Government" (1690). In Two Treatises of Government, edited by P. Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). Amsterdam, 1755. Various modern editions have been published.

Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. London: Smith Elder, 1873. A classic nineteenth-century criticism of radical and egalitarian ideals.

Thomson, David. Equality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1949. Surveys the principal modern egalitarian ideals against a historical backgrounda useful, brief general introduction.

more-recent discussions

Benn, S. I., and R. S. Peters. Social Principles and the Democratic State. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959. Reissued as Principles of Political Thought. New York: Collier, 1964. See especially Chs. 57.

Brandt, Richard B., ed. Social Justice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Essays by K. E. Boulding, Paul A. Freund, William K. Frankena, Alan Gewirth, Gregory Vlastos.

Bryson, L. et al., eds. Aspects of Human Equality. Fifteenth symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. New York: Harper, 1956. Nineteen papers on various aspects. See especially J. Plamenatz, "Equality of Opportunity."

Carritt, E. F. Ethical and Political Thinking. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947.

Hobhouse, L. T. Elements of Social Justice. London: Allen and Unwin, 1922.

Margolis, J. "'That All Men Are Created Equal.'" Journal of Philosophy 52 (13) (1955): 337346. Argues a "fundamental and actual equality of all men."

Raphael, D. D. "Justice and Liberty." PAS 51 (19501951): 167196.

Spiegelberg, Herbert. "A Defence of Human Equality." Philosophical Review 53 (2) (1944): 101124. Interprets the concept in terms of compensation.

Williams, Bernard. "The Idea of Equality." In Philosophy, Politics and Society, edited by Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman. 2nd series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Wollheim, R., and Isaiah Berlin. Symposium on "Equality." PAS 56 (19551956): 281. Reprinted in Justice and Social Policy, edited by F. A. Olafson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961.

economic and social equality

Dahrendorf, R. "On the Origin of Social Inequality." In Philosophy, Politics and Society, edited by Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman. 2nd series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962. A sociological approach.

Harris, R. J. The Quest for Equality. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1960. "Equality" in American constitutional history and law.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. Ethics of Redistribution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1951. A critical analysis of egalitarianism.

Lampman, R. J. "Recent Thought on Egalitarianism." Quarterly Journal of Economics 71 (2) (1957): 234266. Surveys economic doctrines.

Myers, H. A. Are Men Equal? Ithaca, NY: Great Seal, 1955. The American egalitarian tradition.

Tawney, R. H. Equality. Rev. ed. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952.

additional sources

Anderson, Elizabeth. "What Is the Point of Equality?" Ethics 109 (2) (1999): 287337.

Clayton, Matthew, and Andrew Williams, eds. The Ideal of Equality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Includes texts by the editors: John Rawls, T. M. Scanlon ("The Diversity of Objections to Inequality"), Tom Nagel, Derek Parfit ("Equality or Priority"), Larry Temkin, G. A. Cohen, Richard Arneson, and Ronald Dworkin. Essential contemporary texts.

Cohen, G. A. "On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice." Ethics 99 (4) (1989): 906944.

Cohen, G. A. If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Cohen, Joshua. "Democratic Equality." Ethics 99 (4) (1989): 727751.

Cohen, Marshall, et al., eds. Equality and Preferential Treatment: A Philosophy and Public Affairs Reader. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977. Incluces essays by Tom Nagel, J. J. Thomson, Robert Simon, George Sher, Ronald Dworkin, Owen Fiss, and Alan Goldman.

Darwall, Steve, ed. Equal Freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Includes essays by T. M. Scanlon, John Rawls ("The Basic Liberties and Their Priority"), Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen ("Equality of What?"), and G. A. Cohen.

Dworkin, Ronald. Sovereign Virtue. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Dworkin, Ronald, et al. "Symposium on Sovereign Virtue." Ethics 113 (1) (2002): 5143. Contains essays by Matthew Clayton, Andrew Williams, Michael Otsuka, Robert van der Veen, Marc Fleurbaey, and Ronald Dworkin.

Hurley, Susan. Justice, Luck, and Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Johnston, David, ed. Equality. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000. With texts by Plato, Aristotle, the Levellers, Hobbes, Rousseau, Burke, de Tocqueville, Marx, Tawney, von Hayek, Rawls, Nozick, Sen ("Equality of What?"), Dworkin, Walzer ("Complex Equality"), Kymlicka, and Iris Young.

Kagan, Shelly. "Equality and Desert." In What Do We Deserve?, edited by Louis Pojman and Owen McLeod. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kekes, John. The Illusions of Egalitarianism. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Koppelman, Andrew. Antidiscrimination Law and Social Equality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Nagel, Thomas. Equality and Partiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Okin, Susan Moller. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

Otsuka, Michael. Libertarianism without Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Persson, Ingmar. "A Basis for Interspecies Equality." In The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.

Pojman, Louis P., and Robert Westmoreland, eds. Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Includes texts by Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hume, Babeuf and Marechal, Oppenheim, McKerlie, Temkin, Kant, Nozick, Lucas, Benn, Vlastos, Schaar, Fishkin, Westen, Galston, Rawls, Matson, Nielson, Hare, Arneson ("Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare"), Rakowski, Nagel, Frankfurt ("Equality as a Moral Ideal"), Pojman, Walzer ("Complex Equality"), and Vonnegut.

Rakowski, Eric. Equal Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971].

Raz, Joseph. "Equality." Chapter 9 in his The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Roemer, John. Equality of Opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1998.

Scheffler, Samuel. "What Is Egalitarianism?" Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (1) (2003): 541.

Sen, Amartya. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. "Egalitarianism, Choice-Sensitivity, and Accommodation." In Reasons and Values: Themes from the Work of Joseph Raz, edited by Philip Pettit, Samuel Scheffler, Michael Smith, and R. Jay Wallace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Steiner, Hillel. "Capitalism, Justice, and Equal Starts." Social Philosophy and Policy 5 (1987): 4971.

Tawney, R. H. Equality. Rev. ed. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1952 [1931].

Temkin, Larry. Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Vallentyne, Peter. "Equality, Efficiency and Priority for the Worse Off." Economics and Philosophy 16 (2000): 119.

Van Parijs, Philippe. Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Wilkinson, T. M. "Raz on Equality." Imprints 3 (2) (1998): 132155.

Stanley I. Benn (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Pogge (2005)