10 Equality of What and Justification of Equality

Papia Sengupta

epgp books


(The module is an introduction to the topic of Equality. Equality has been the most debated concept in modern as well as contemporary political theory. Most civil and socio-economic movements are based on demands for equality and equal treatment. The present module is divided into four parts. The first part discusses the historical trajectory of the concept of equality. The second part presents an introduction meaning and understanding of equality with emphasis on Amartya Sen’s famous article titled “Equality of What?” This part will have different conceptions of equality as propounded by Ronald Dworkin i.e. Equality of resources and Equality of Welfare. The third part throws light on the popular conception of equality as equal opportunities. The fourth part concluding remarks)




It is said about ‘equality’, that few terms of political discourse have enjoyed such a long life and played such an important role in the making of modern history. It is one of the most popular as well as controversial ideal (Arneson: 1993). The Oxford Dictionary of English defines equality as ‘a state of being equal especially in status, rights and opportunities’1.


Aristotle can be termed as the first thinker to write on equality. Aristotle explains equality as corollary to justice. He writes that “justice means equality for equals and inequality for un-equals”. (Aristotle Book III, 9). Further he asserts that “the city is partnership in living well….for the sake of a complete and self sufficient life”. (Aristotle Book III, 9). Aristotle talked of equality only for the class of citizens and slaves and women were excluded from the class of citizens.


Cicero writing on political inequality, during the Roman period, argues that though “all human beings share the faculty of reason and therefore are equal in their capacity to grasp what is just and lawful…. But at the same time, all people are not equally rational and therefore not equally law abiding”. (Cicero: 1928, 1.7.23) He clarifies this further and says that the equality enjoyed by humans at birth is in effect eradicated by differences of environment, so wisdom ultimately remain with few and the multitude remains in a state of ignorance. (Nederman: 2009, 110) Hence Cicero does not support democracy because it fails to respect the inequality of humans.


In the modern period Thomas Hobbes defined equality as “everyone is equal in rights and the ability to survive in state of nature”. But because state of nature is a wretched condition and men must be ready to suffer anything to be out of it. “Inequality is artificial not natural but it is a part and parcel of decent life”. (Martinich: 2005). Therefore, Hobbes supported inequality as an essential component of decent living.


John Locke accorded that “basic equality is the strongest grounding… as an axiom of theology”. Defending Locke, Jeremy Waldron argues that for Locke “basic equality is most important truth about God’s way in the world in regard to social and political implications of His creation of the human person” (Waldron: 2002, 6). He quotes from Locke’s Second Treatise that “God created all of us…in a state of equality wherein all the powers and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another”. (Waldron: 2002, 6)


Rousseau in his famous work Discourses on Origins of Inequality written in 1754, also known as Second Discourse, discusses the concept of equality at length. He distinguishes between two kinds of inequality i.e. physical and political. Physical inequality is in terms of strength, capacity, looks etc. these he refers as ‘natural’ inequalities. Political or moral inequalities on the other hand, are not natural but conventional i.e. established by consent of men. (Rousseau: 1754). The moral inequalities are at the centre of Rousseau’s thesis on inequality. He attributes loss of freedom to the inequality produced by the emergence of private property. The civilized people developed social classes based on property and along with social inequalities comes loss of liberty. (Nelson: 2008, 224) For Rousseau, inequality of property destroys the innate goodness of men and produces competition for economic goods. Hence, for Rousseau political inequality though cannot be fully remedied can be overcome to some extent through a rule by direct democracy and general will.


Even in contemporary times, most social movements are based on demands for ‘equality’. The proponents of social movements assert that equality is a basic human right and all humans must be guaranteed some basic rights which enable them to live a life of dignity without hunger, poverty, malnutrition and discrimination.



Kinds of Equality


Thomas Nagel categorizes four kinds of equality i.e. legal, political, social and economic. He argues that political equality if taken as one person one vote, legal equality as the right to file a law suit and trial and social equality if considered as abolition of titles and special privileges can only be considered as ‘formal’ equality and not ‘real’ equality. As none of these can guarantee the removal of ‘substantive inequalities’, which he considers are dependent on economic factors. (Nagel: 1978).


Legal equality means ‘equality before law’, i.e. the law applies equally to all individual citizens irrespective of their caste, religion, language and gender but this equality becomes hollow if an individual belongs to under-privileged class and is unable to hire a good lawyer. Such individuals may suffer acute inequalities and loose the trial. Hence, equality before law or legal equality requires equality of basic resources. But economic equality is far from reality. In our societies we witness few people who own large resources and a huge percentage of population doesn’t have even the basic amenities like water, food and shelter. Hence, legal, political and social equality are ideals in almost all constitutions of the world but reality is far different.


Political equality defined in such narrow terms may render useless as people facing poverty may not leave one day wage to vote. Social equality cannot be granted simply by abolishing titles, this we have witnessed in India. Even after 65 years of abolition of titles by Article 17 of our constitution in 1949, inequality on grounds of caste and name still prevails in the Indian society.


Political equality has been explained very well by Sydney Verba who includes various activities such as political campaign, participating in local community activity, contacts with public officials and protests. These he terms as ‘equal activity’ which is crucial for equal consideration because political activity is a means by which citizens inform the governing elites about their needs and preferences” (Verba: 1972). This he considers very important for democracy.


Equality of What?


The first question any scholar of equality has to answer is Equality of What? ‘What’ here connotes various things such as claims, rights, status, opportunities, welfare, resources and privilege.


Prof. Amartya Sen in his widely cited article Equality of What? He proposes a concept of ‘basic capability equality’ and criticized three prevalent conceptions of equality i.e. Utilitarian, Equality as Utility and Rawlsian conception of equality. He argues that all of the above conceptions have serious limitations. Defining Utilitarian Equality as ‘the equality derived from the utilitarian concept of goodness applied to problems of distribution’, Sen asserts that the utilitarian conception of equality, based on maximum utility requires equality of marginal utility i.e. equal treatment of everybody’s interests, provides an inadequate index of measuring utility on moral grounds and marginal utility cannot be taken as identifiable with the indicators of social importance. (Sen: 1979, 200) Further he challenges the utilitarian conception of equality as undermining the fundamental diversity of human beings. He explains that humans are not homogeneous and hence treating their needs as mere ‘utilities’ can led to gross inequalities. Sen quotes John Harsanyi that “utilitarianism leads to ‘unfair discrimination’ by equating between ‘one person’s and another person’s equally urgent human needs”. (Harsanyi: 1977, 294-95)


Second, Sen criticizes the ‘total utility equality’ also known as welfarism, is a matter of direct observation and is based on ranking with regards to two cases of non equal distributions. One such ranking, Sen asserts is provided by lexicographic version of the maximin rule1 like John Rawls’ Difference Principle. The only difference being that Rawls talks of primary goods and not utilities.


Third, Sen argues against the principle of Rawlsian Equality as he asserts that the ‘Difference principle’ of Rawls by talking about hard cases does not take into account inequalities that arise from disabilities, special needs, physical and mental disabilities’. (Sen 1979: 215)


Basic Capability Equality


Amartya Sen’s main thesis is that all the above theories miss the point of ‘basic capabilities’. He defines basic capabilities as “a person being able to do certain basic things like needing shelter, food, clothing, movement, to participate in social life etc”. (Sen: 1979) These basic capabilities Sen claims as fundamental and the earlier three conceptions of equality do not take this into consideration. The issue according to Sen is the interpretation of needs in the form of basic capabilities which is implicit in the demand for equality. Equality as Capability depends on “a person’s capability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable ‘beings and doings’ like being in good health or having loving relationships with others to which they have real access.


Sen proposes the ‘basic capabilities equality’ “as a natural extension of Rawls’s concern with primary goods shifting attention from goods to what goods do to human beings”. (Sen: 1979, 219) The basic capabilities equality, Sen 6 claimed, is compatible with diversity of cultures which give significance to different values, cultures and it is gender sensitive. (Sen: 1993)


Equality of Resources


Ronald Dworkin somewhat follows John Rawls’s principle of veil of ignorance, which Dworkin calls the ‘auction’. But even before Dworkin discusses the ‘auction’, he clearly mentions that the principle of ‘equality of resources is a matter of equality in whatever resources are privately owned”. (Dworkin: 1981, 283) This means that Dworkin’s conceptualization of equality of resources is not about distributing public resources and political power, hence, resources with the state are not included in Dworkin’s equality of resources. But in most states resources are publicly owned by the state and it is precisely the distribution of such resources that lead to conflicts.


Auction, Luck and Insurance


Dworkin supports “the idea of economic market as a device for setting price of a variety of goods and services and therefore market must be at the centre of any theoretical development of equality of resources”. (Dwokin 1981, 284) This he tries to prove by the famous example of shipwreck and its survivors who are washed up to an island which has abundant resources. These survivors whom Dworkin calls the immigrants, accepts the principle that no one is antecedently entitled to these resources but that they shall be divided equally among the survivors. For the equal distribution of resources, Dworkin develops what he calls the ‘envy test’, a test of an equal division of resources. According to Dworkin, “no division of resources is equal division if any one survivor prefer someone else’s share to his own share. Secondly, what if a person elected as the divider, distributes the resources equally among all the survivors still there is scope for envy because survivor ‘a’ might not be happy with her share but might prefer another’s share”. What will happen if the divider is unfair? So the divider must device a method which will take care of arbitrariness and unfairness.


To this, Dworkin provides the solution of ‘auction’. He explains the auction as follows, each survivor is given equal number of clamshells, which are evenly distributed among them and each item in the island is listed to be sold by auction. This minimizes the amount of unfairness and arbitrariness and leads to equal distribution of resources. Hence, now no one will envy the other. But Dworkin argues that the auction will be successful only for a short while as some survivors may be more skillful and smart to produce what others want, some may stay healthy some may fall sick, some may work more some may work less and hence there will again be inequality. This Dworkin terms as ‘luck’. Further he differentiates between two kinds of luck i.e. ‘option luck’ and ‘brute luck’, option luck is a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out i.e. whether some or losses or gains through accepting an isolated risk and the anticipation of such risks. Brute luck is a matter of how risks fall out that are not deliberate gambles. (Dworkin: 1981, 293) Hence, he devices the option of ‘insurance’, which provides link between option and brute luck by providing the option to buy insurance which then is a calculated gamble.


Dworkin argues that he does not support equality of resources, to be applied as a political ideal but that any principle of justice needs an original position, howsoever abstract it might be, cannot be taken as the beginning of political philosophy. But that the force of original position as a device for justice needs a deeper interpretation of the equality of resources argument. (Dworkin: 1981, 345)


Equality of Opportunity


Equality of opportunity is one of the most well accepted forms of equality in the democratic world today. Scholars such as James Fishkin (1983), Richard Arneson (1989), David Miller (1999), Allen Buchanan (1996), William Galston (1986) conceptualized equality of opportunity as based on merits and equal competition in liberal societies.


John Rawls can also be credited with giving his exposition on equality of opportunity in his two lexical principles. According to him there are differences among individuals due to natural assets such as being born in a well off family having resources for education and leading a god life. For Rawls equality of opportunity goes beyond the common understood notion of “persons of equal talent and motivation have equal prospects of attaining social offices and positions”. In order to compensate those who still suffer Rawls writes that “inequalities should be so arranged as to maximize the life prospects of the worst off. (Buchanan: 1995, 105) This kind of equality Rawls terms as fair equality of opportunity.


Norman Daniels (1985) wrote on extending Rawlsian equality to healthcare as healthcare falls under special case and denial of healthcare adversely affects individual’s capability to grab opportunities.


Equality of opportunities is easier if it is not equated with equality of outcomes. James Fishkin (1987) argues that liberty and equality of opportunities will not be in conflict if equality of opportunity is not seen also as equality of outcomes. If equality of opportunity is seen merely as a situation where everyone of similar capacity and skills gets a fair chance to compete for state jobs then it does not appears so controversial. But once we talk of equal outcomes, conflicts seep in.


According to Roemer, the goal of equality of opportunity is to establish “policy that compensates people for negative circumstances in order to establish a society in which individual effort is the only thing that matters”. (Roemer: 2006) He uses the formulation of ‘level playing field’, i.e. equal opportunity policy must create level playing field, after which each individual is on his own-what outcomes finally occur will reflect individual efforts, and differential outcomes are acceptable” (Roemer: 2001, 455)


Difference and Equality


This is a comparatively new addition to the debates on equality. The roots of this lies in the politics of recognition and multiculturalism, since multicultural approach to equality is based on ‘real equality and not formal equality’, i.e. multicultural theorists argue that because all individuals are not equal, going by the liberal principle of equality as ‘treating all equally’, leads to gross inequality. The multiculturalists demand for equality on grounds of cultural differences. They asserted that in a liberal set up difference of culture, customs, religions and so on are not taken into account and liberals treat all individuals as mere citizens, leading to inequalities.


Multiculturalists argue against equality as equated with uniformity. “Equality has two levels: shared human nature and cultural. Treating humans equally requires that both these levels are kept in mind. Since different cultures have varied structures and customs and therefore values differ. Equal rights do not mean identical rights.” (Parekh: 2000, 240) Equality does not mean only rejection of irrelevant differences but also recognition of legitimate and relevant ones (Parekh: 2000, 240)


Michael Walzer coins the term “complex equality, in his book- ‘In Spheres of Justice’, he defines this as “ complex equality means that no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regards to one social good can be undercut by his standing on some other sphere, with some other good. Thus, citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office and then the two will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X’s office gives him no advantage over Y in any other sphere—superior medical care, access to better schools for his children ….and so on”. (Walzer: 1983, 19)


Summing up


Equality is one concept that has occupied political philosophy from ancient Greek times and is still very much relevant in today’s world. There are variants of equality as we have seen from the above discussion. But equality needs rights to complement itself.



  1. Oxford Dictionary of English, equality the noun http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/equality
you can view video on Equality of What and Justification of Equality



  1. Aristotle (1996) Politics and Constitution of Athens translated by Stephen Everson. Book III, Chapter 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Arneson Richard (1993) “Equality,” in: R. Goodin & P. Pettit (eds.), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 489-507.
  3. Arneson Richard (1989) “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare”. Philosophical Studies 56, pp77-93
  4. Buchanan Allen (1996) “Equal Opportunity and Genetic Intervention”, Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, USA. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~jwcwolf/Papers/Buchanan%20Equal%20Op% 20Genetic%20Intervention.pdf
  5. Daniel Norman (1985) “Fair Equality of Opportunity: A reply to Buchanan”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 14(1), 106-110
  6. Dworkin Ronald (1981) What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10 (4), 283-345, complete text available http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/courses/DWORKINeqofres ources.pdf
  7. Fishkin   James   (1983)   “Can   there   be   a   Neutral   Theory   of Justice?”Ethics, 93(2),348-356
  8. Galston William (1986) Without Foundations: Justification in Political Theory
  9. Harsanyi John (1975) Can the Maxim Principle Serve as the Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls’s Theory. American Political Science Review. Vol. 64
  10. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1754) What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men and Is It Authorised by Natural Law? Translated by G.D.H.Cole Liberty library http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq.htm
  11. Martinich A.P. (2005) A Hobbes Dictionary. Blackwell Reference online,http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g97806311926 26_chunk_g97806311926269_ss1-5
  12. Nagel Thomas (1978) “The Justification of Equality”, Critica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofia. Volume 10, No. 28 (April) pp 3-31.
  13. Sen Amartya (1979) “Equality of What?” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Stanford University
  14. Tocqueville Alexander (1840) Influence of Democracy on the Feelings of the Americans, Democracy in America, Second Book, Chapter 1. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/DETOC/toc_indx.html
  15. Waldron Jeremy  (2002)  God,  Locke  and  Equality:  Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Rawls John (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  17. Roemer John E. (2001) “Equality of opportunity: A progress report”, Social Choice and Welfare, 19; 455-471
  18. Rousseau Jean Jacques (1754) Discourses on Origin of Inequality.
  19. Walzer Michael (1983) The Sphere of Justice. Basic Books
  20. Parekh Bhikhu (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Macmillan.
  21. Nelson Brain (2008) Western Political Thought. Pearson Longman.


Learn More

Journals to be consulted

Philosophy and Public Affairs