Egalitarianism is a political ideology centered on the belief in human equality. As a basic concept, equality by itself refers only to a relation, such as “less than” or “greater than,” rather than a quality or essence. To judge two things equal, we must also specify the relevant qualities they have in common. Therefore, egalitarianism is the belief that all humans share an essence or quality that makes them equal. Although all egalitarians believe in equality, they often differ in their understanding of the qualities all humans share.
Every form of egalitarianism is cosmopolitan and inclusive. Those who see only the members of their own group as equal are not egalitarian. Because egalitarianism is always based on a theory of universal human commonality and because such universal human qualities are difficult to define, their essence is often unspecified by egalitarian thinkers. Nonetheless, anyone who believes all humans are equal must also believe all humans have some kind of essence or quality in common, because without commonality there can be no equality.
All theories of universal human commonality fall into one of two categories. Either the essentially human qualities come from the laws of nature, or those qualities are transcendent or spiritual. Theories of a universal human nature belong to the first category, whereas the belief in a transcendent spark of essential human dignity belongs to the second. In European and North American thought, the egalitarianism of nature is descended from ancient Greek ideas about the invariable, underlying patterns that govern all things. These patterns are understood as scientific laws, and human nature in this view is universal and relatively invariable. Transcendent or supernatural ideas of human equality developed from the traditions of monotheism, according to which a supernatural creator gave to all humans a spark of the divine essence. According to this view, all humans share the power of self-creativity, the ability to define their own nature.
Hence these two kinds of egalitarianism are at odds with each other on the question of human malleability. In the egalitarianism of human nature, the natural qualities shared by everyone vary only within a limited range, whereas in the egalitarianism of self-creativity, all humans share the power to define their own essence. Therefore the egalitarianism of nature tends to be more conservative, and the egalitarianism of self-creativity is usually more liberal or progressive.
Although the egalitarianism of human nature is seen as too limited by those in the tradition of self-creativity, historically it led to ideas of natural rights that inspired revolutions. The U.S. Declaration of Independence begins by asserting the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which in turn were based on John Locke’s ideas of human nature. In this view, the forces of nature provide humans with fixed wants and the power of labor to fulfill them. Equality is the common freedom to pursue our given wants with our natural powers. All humans have the same nature and therefore the same rights.
In the nineteenth century the egalitarianism of human nature increasingly came to be seen as inauthentic by those who saw freedom as the ability to transcend such limits. The equality of natural powers led to inequalities of social outcomes, which economic theories of human nature seemed to excuse. In the alternative view, to achieve true equality we must first eliminate the inherited constraints of the past. According to the newer egalitarianism of self-creativity, the Lockean theory of human nature is a mere social construct used by the rich to justify their privileges. True equality instead requires the ability to make society anew. For egalitarians such as Karl Marx, labor is not just a natural force but also, more importantly, the power of human self-existence, which the rich had alienated from the poor in a way that robbed them of their essential humanity. Only when the workers of the world were reunited in the self-creative circle of production and consumption would true equality be achieved.
In the early twenty-first century the two dominant versions of egalitarianism continue to compete in the politics of Western societies. Almost everyone is an egalitarian of some sort, but equality continues to be understood in different ways. In the egalitarianism of human nature, governments should provide fairness of competition and opportunity, but success depends on natural talent and effort. In the egalitarianism of self-creativity, politics is itself a mode of social self-definition, and equal participation in self-government is both a means and an end of equality. The politics of all democracies contain some mixture of these competing beliefs.
SEE ALSO Alienation; Creativity; Democracy; Equal Opportunity; Equality; Happiness; Humanism; Labor; Liberty; Locke, John; Meritocracy; Naturalism; Philosophy
Cohen, Gerry A. 1995. Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Raz, Joseph. 1986. Equality. In The Morality of Freedom, 217–244. Oxford: Clarendon.
Boris De Wiel