Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: egalitarianism from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Belief that all citizens in a state should have equal rights and privileges. Interpretations of this can vary, from the notion of equality of opportunity to equality in material welfare and political decision-making. Some states reject egalitarianism; most accept the concept of equal opportunities but recognize that people's abilities vary widely. Even those states which claim to be socialist find it necessary to have hierarchical structures in the political, social, and economic spheres. Egalitarianism was one of the principles of the French Revolution.


Summary Article: Egalitarianism from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

The concept of equality is an internally complex idea. We should speak instead of conceptions because many of the varied conceptual strands that fall under this category bear family resemblances but sit together uncomfortably or downright contend with one another. This is because equality is an intrinsically comparative idea. The proposition that two things are equal may be descriptive, that is, factual, or it may be normative. Such a proposition is incomplete, however, without further specification of the respects in which the objects compared are thought to be equal. Because no two objects outside the realm of pure mathematics or logic can be equal in all respects—only in all relevant respects—the question of which respects are relevant in social theory yields a spectrum of debates.

Equality and Social Justice

The assertion of the equal standing of individuals has made equality a central but controversial ideal in social and political theory. The declaration “all men are created equal” is not rebutted by pointing to the obvious fact that some are smarter or stronger or better looking than others. The ideal of equality is a prescriptive claim about social justice. It says there is some respect in which no difference should be made in the consideration of individuals, whatever their actual differences. Greater equality in principle, however, leaves open the question of what exactly should be equalized: opportunities, resources, welfare, capabilities, or another aspect of human life. There are sound arguments for taking any one of these as the basis of public policy; ranging from extreme egalitarian approaches, in which virtually nothing forfeits equal treatment, to elitist ones, in which many things do. Four related but distinguishable forms of equality can be discerned: moral, social, legal, and political.

Moral equality is the idea that people should be regarded as being equal in value or worth, at least insofar as they are the subjects of moral reasoning. The equal worth of people entitles them to equal consideration in the treatment of their interests in a scheme of moral decision making, as in the utilitarian concern that each one counts as one in aggregation procedures. Social equality demands that all members of society enjoy equal access to basic goods that enable them to lead good lives, such as income, wealth, education, and medical care. Legal equality, or equality before the law, holds that all those to whom the laws of a particular political association apply should be subject to a standard impartial body of laws. No one should enjoy privileges that are not extended to all, nor should anyone in particular be exempt from legal sanctions. Political equality demands that all members of a polity have an equal say with all others in the selection of leaders and making of laws. This idea is most obviously violated when some members are disenfranchised.

Outcomes or Opportunities

Provided that the relative levels of equality across individuals can be measured in the first place, the question of opportunities versus outcomes yields further debates within each of these conceptions. For instance, some people advocate equalizing opportunities for high incomes even if it leads to exceedingly unequal incomes in the end. On this view, as long as competition for advantages is open to all, the ideal of social equality does not require that everyone end up with equal or similar advantages. To the contrary, those who promote equality of outcomes view equal opportunity as irrelevant or secondary at best if some people end up substantially rich and others poor. Similarly, there are debates over whether and how much political equality concerns eligibility or actual participation. Equal suffrage, for instance, will not offset or correct for an imbalance in the political voices on offer and will only contingently lead to legislative outcomes that conform to some standard of equality.

Challenges to Equality

Tensions also exist between each of the general conceptions of equality. Legal and social equality are widely believed to stand in an uneasy relation to one another. Legal equality as it is usually understood requires that the law be blind to a great range of differences between those who are subject to it. To apply the law impartially means to apply it without regard to those differences. Yet, to promote social equality, it may be necessary to apply the law in ways that are sensitive to disabilities; differences of gender, class, and race; or effects of past discrimination, as some proponents of affirmative action have argued. Moreover, moral and legal equality may be concerned primarily with conceptions of agent or agents so as to run up against the constraints or bounds posed by any particular polity or sovereign nation. Thus, any adequate balancing of multiple equalities will surely impinge on other values deemed socially important, such as merit or desert, individual freedom, pluralism, or communal ties. Radically egalitarian measures can infringe on some for the sake of others, lead to an unraveling of other aspects of social life for all, or undermine too many of the economic and cultural conditions for stable society.

Grounds for Equality

No social or political theory aims at equality categorically, only specific conceptions deemed socially important when they are embedded within a broader theory of politics and society. Thus, the concept evoked by the term equality is actually a range of “equalities,” each of which answers whether and what kinds of equalities of social situation are desirable. Egalitarianism as a social and political thought covers a wide range of philosophical explanations of the value of equality and justifications for specific practices so aimed. Because human beings differ remarkably in endowments and capabilities, egalitarianism rarely means treating everyone exactly alike or making people's conditions the same in any respect. To speak of egalitarianism without historical, social, or philosophical qualification, therefore, is to speak elliptically. An egalitarian usually finds some existing social arrangement indefensible—an inequality based on allegedly irrelevant or inappropriate grounds for differential treatment—and calls for replacing that system of distinctions. Historically, the focus of egalitarian ideals has shifted continuously to attack the differential treatment of barbarian and Greek, freeman and slave, noble and commoner, black and white, male and female.

Brief History of Egalitarian Ideas

With respect to Western European and Anglo American thought, modern egalitarian ideas have a long and diverse history. In the English civil war of the 1640s, the Levellers claimed that legitimate authority of superiors to command inferiors derives from the voluntary agreement of natural equals. Taking for granted individuals' rough equality of strength and guile, Thomas Hobbes proposed that an absolute sovereign is necessary to ensure lasting peace. John Locke—whose ideas came to be regarded more as a rejection of egalitarianism than a version of it—nonetheless held that men are by nature equally free, subject only to natural law, and possess the same natural rights. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that social inequalities are artificial, arising from the pressures of a sophisticated way of life; thus the key problem, to which the sovereignty of the general will gave answer, was reconciling man's natural equality and autonomy with political authority and the social condition. Similarly, Immanuel Kant's statement of human beings as morally self-governing agents declared all to be equal legislating members of the kingdom of ends and said they ought to be treated as ends and not merely as means. At the end of the eighteenth century, egalitarian ideas found voice in the great revolutionary movements in Europe and America and were made explicit in the declaration of rights. Mid-nineteenth-century Europe saw, in addition to revolutionary movements for political power, the evolution of socialist and communist thinking, which targeted economic inequalities as well. In America, egalitarian claims have been heaved on the status quo in the struggle to end slavery and later fueled the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and support for universal human rights.

Equality and Freedom

In modern democratic societies with market economies, egalitarianism usually refers to a position that favors a greater degree of equality of income and wealth across individuals than already exists. The focus on equality is that of results, according to which people should be made more nearly equal in actual circumstances. This contrasts with equality of opportunity or equality before the law—ideas more commonly associated with modern libertarianism and classical liberalism—where the freedom and rights of the individual are paramount and of utmost concern in matters of political affairs. Many egalitarians have been suspicious of equal formal rights, pointing to the substantive inequalities they may disguise or exacerbate. The insistence on redistribution toward equalities of income, wealth, capabilities, or life chances shares common ground with socialism. Critics have maintained, however, that egalitarianism necessarily diminishes aspects of freedom in unacceptable ways. For instance, libertarian arguments claim that redistributive measures to equalize property involve a constant and extensive infringement of some individuals' Lockean rights, constraining their liberty to enjoy the fruits of their own labor and to gain more property than others by trade, inheritance, or assiduousness. Egalitarian rejoinders argue that goods such as money give one the positive freedom to engage in a wide variety of activities and experiences; thus, little justification can be made for why people should not be able to enjoy this effective freedom to the same extent. Moreover, the injustice lies not in economic inequality alone, but in an unequal distribution of economic goods as also the source of unequal power, status, and prestige.

Specifying Egalitarianism

Considerable debate surrounds what is required for egalitarian positions sensitive to arguments about markets, individual freedom, fair treatment, just distribution, the nature of society, communal ties, and the meaning of citizenship. Disagreement characterizes attempts to identify inequalities that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. Controversies also embattle attempts to specify the class of human beings to whom egalitarian norms apply. Some might count an unborn fetus or a very severely demented person as a human being, while others would not. Furthermore, one should not take for granted that the adjustment sought by egalitarianism is strictly for people or individualized agents. A minority linguistic community in a particular society might seek government action, on egalitarian grounds, to promote its flourishing or survival alongside the dominant group. Egalitarian claims have been raised against difference of privilege thought to be irrelevantly grounded and against qualifications for assuming a role considered unduly restrictive to some. The focus and scope of egalitarian ideals, therefore, has and will continue to change with the social and political context.

See also

Affirmative Action, Democracy, Equality, Equality of Opportunity, Equity, Justice, Theories of, Marxism, Radical Democracy

Further Readings
  • Cohen, G. A. (2008). Rescuing justice and equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Darwall, S. (Ed.). (1995). Equal freedom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Dworkin, R. (2000). Sovereign virtue. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the post-socialist condition. London: Routledge.
  • Johnston, D. (Ed.). (2000). Equality. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Kymlicka, W. (1990). Contemporary political philosophy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  • Nielsen, K. (1985). Equality and liberty. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld.
  • Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.
  • Pateman, C. (1988). The sexual contract. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Pojman, L., & Westmoreland, R. (Eds.). (1997). Equality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Roemer, J. (2000). Equality of opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sen, A. (1992). Inequality reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sen, A., & Williams, B. (Eds.). (1982). Utilitarianism and beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Shapiro, I. (1996). Democracy's place. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Van Parijs, P. (1995). Real freedom for all. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  • Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of justice. New York: Basic Books.
  • Young, I. M. (1991). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Choi, Naomi
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Egalitarianism
    The Social Science Jargon-Buster

    Core definition Philosophical/political positioning that all members of a society should be treated with equality. Longer explanation ...

    Full text Article Egalitarianism
    Dictionary of American Government and Politics

    Egalitarianism is a political philosophy that believes in equality. Deriving from the French égal ('equal' or 'level') its adherents support the not

    Full text Article egalitarianism
    The Dictionary of Human Geography

    The view that all people are of equal fundamental moral or social worth, and should be treated as such. Egalitarianism can take a number of forms...

    See more from Credo