Concept of Equality

Equality is the principle of ensuring fairness and equal treatment for all individuals, regardless of their differences or backgrounds. It promotes a level playing field where everyone has the same opportunities and rights.


The idea of equality stands as a defining feature of modern political thought, challenging the classical and medieval belief in natural hierarchies. Equality is not just a concept; it is a prescriptive term that emphasizes that all individuals must be treated as equals. This concept is built upon the assumption that humans are rational beings, endowed with the faculty of reason, and all are created equal by a higher power.

According to Harold Laski, concept of equality entails abolishing special privileges, offering opportunities for individual growth, granting unrestricted access to social benefits, and diminishing economic and social disparities. This vision underscores a commitment to a fair and just society where all individuals enjoy equal rights and opportunities.

Meanwhile, John Locke provided a different perspective. According to him men have equal rights to their natural freedom. But men having equal worth does not mean that they have equal talent and equal capacity and therefore equal treatment would not fit in the meaning of equality.

Further, this article delves into the multifaceted concept of equality, exploring various dimensions and the evolution of this idea.

Definitions of Equality

Various political theorists have offered their definitions of equality, shedding light on the different aspects of this complex concept. Here are a few notable definitions:

Mikhail Bakunin: “Political freedom without economic equality is a pretense, a fraud, a lie, and the workers want no lying.”

D.D Raphael: “The right to equality is a right of equal satisfaction of basic needs including capacities.

Barker: “Barker’s perspective holds that equality signifies identical rights for all individuals and the abolition of all special rights or privileges.”

Laski: “As per Laski, equality ensures that no individual within a society should be in a position to surpass their neighbor to an extent that it amounts to a rejection of the latter’s citizenship.”

Theodore Bikel: “I am a universalist, passionately devoted to the cause of equality within the human family.”

Feagler: “Equality of opportunity is freedom, but equality of outcome is repression.”

Fromm: “Men are born equal, but they are born different as well.”

Evolution of the Concept of Equality

Since ancient Greek civilization, the concept of equality has been a prevailing ideal that has evolved significantly over the centuries, influenced by and influencing the countless individuals who have championed various movements for equality and against exploitation.

During the 17th century and beyond, the prevailing notion revolved around natural equality, drawing from the traditions of natural law and social contract theory. This perspective was exemplified by Hobbes, who posited that in their natural state, individuals possess equal rights because their capacity to harm each other is fundamentally the same.

Locke, on the other hand, argued that all humans share the natural right to self-ownership and freedom. Rousseau emphasized that with the advent of civilization and emergence of private property human innocence got corrupted and resulted into inequality and prevalence of violence which could only be surmounted by establishing a collective civil existence based on shared subjectivity.

Early 18th century, it was commonly assumed that humans were inherently unequal, resulting in a natural hierarchy. However, this assumption began to erode with the advent of the concept of natural rights, which indicated an inherent equality among all human beings. This concept implied substantive, universal, moral equality, as individuals were considered children of God, making everyone equal before God. Alexis de Tocqueville in his book ‘Democracy in America’ states that “equality is inevitable and irresistible. The gradual process of equality is something that is fated”.

Types of Equality

Equality can be classified into various forms, each addressing different aspects of human society:

Legal equality is the foundation upon which many modern societies are built. It demands that all individuals be granted equal legal status, regardless of their differences. This concept finds its roots in the works of thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that extending legal equality to all citizens was a primary characteristic of civil society. Legal equality ensures equal access to the law and the equal subjection of all citizens, creating formal equality before the law.

Political Equality

Political equality focuses on providing equal political rights to all citizens, emphasizing the idea that individuals are rational beings capable of making political judgments. This concept includes democratic rights, universal suffrage, freedom of expression, and the right to form associations to influence political decisions. Political scientist Robert Dahl identifies five criteria for a democratic government consistent with political equality, including voting equally, effective participation, enlightened understanding, controlling the agenda, and inclusion of all adult members in collective decisions.

Social Equality

SI Benn and RS Peters in their work “social principles and the democratic state” (1975) have significantly remarked that the term Social Equality has been adopted by socialists largely to distinguish their objective from earlier egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution

Social equality aims to establish a society where all individuals or groups have the same status in certain respects. Socialists have adopted this term to distinguish their objectives from earlier egalitarian ideals. Social equality seeks to eliminate aristocratic legal privileges and feudal obligations while promoting a more equitable social order.

Economic Equality

Economic equality does not imply identical economic conditions for all but rather the absence of significant economic disparities. It emphasizes the importance of meeting urgent and basic needs before addressing specific ones. Economic inequality, according to Marxists, can lead to the dominance of one economic class over another, resulting in exploitation.


Egalitarianism is a fundamental philosophy rooted in the pursuit of equality, emphasizing that all individuals, regardless of their age, gender, or personal preferences, should be treated equitably. This concept extends its reach to economic and legal spheres, giving rise to two prominent branches: economic egalitarianism and legal egalitarianism.

Economic Egalitarianism: Economic egalitarianism posits that individuals should have equal access to wealth. It underlines the importance of ensuring that no one is denied the opportunity to prosper.

Legal Egalitarianism: Legal egalitarianism emphasizes the need for a level playing field in the legal arena. It asserts that everyone should adhere to the same laws, thereby preventing anyone from receiving special legal privileges.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is a radical and contentious form of egalitarianism. It posits that all individuals should finish the metaphorical race of life together, regardless of their starting point and speed. 

Advocates of equality of outcome (whether in its moderate or radical sense) usually argue that it is the most vital form of equality, since without it order forms of equality are not genuine. For example, equal legal and civil rights are of little benefit to citizens who do not possess a secure job, decent wage, a roof over their head and so forth. Rousseau endorsed the concept of equal outcomes and famously expressed, “No individual should possess sufficient wealth to purchase another, and no one should be so destitute as to be compelled to trade their own self.”

The economic cost of equality is, however, less forbidding than the moral price that has to be paid. The new right thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Keith believed that equality is based on little more than social envy, the desire to have what the wealthy already possess. Policies that aim to promote equality by redistributing wealth do little more than rob the rich in order to pay the poor.

Equality of Opportunity

Equality of Opportunity is about giving everyone a fair start in life. It’s like making sure all runners start at the same starting line in the race. But, in this case, it’s not about making sure everyone finishes at the same time. It’s about giving everyone an equal chance to do their best, even if they end up at different places.

Some people believe that giving everyone an equal start in life is what makes the race fair, even if some people end up ahead of others. So, the idea of equal opportunity is more about giving everyone a chance to be their best, even if it means they’ll have different outcomes. In this way, it’s considered okay for some natural differences to exist because they’re seen as either unavoidable or right.

Indeed, in the eyes of many, it is precisely the ‘equal start to the race which legitimizes its unequal outcome. In effect, the principle of equal opportunities comes down to an equal opportunity to become unequal. This is because the concept distinguishes between two forms of equality , one is acceptable and the other is unacceptable. Natural inequalities considered to be either inevitable or morally ‘right’. In Margaret Thatcher’s words, there is a right to be unequal.

So, in simple terms, Equality of Outcome is about making everyone finish at the same time, while Equality of Opportunity is about giving everyone an equal start, even if they end up at different places in the race of life. As rightly said by John F Kennedy “All of us do not have equal talents but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents”.

Concept of Meritocracy by Michael Young

Michael Young’s concept of meritocracy, introduced in his 1958 essay, explores the idea of rewarding individuals based on their talents and efforts rather than inherited privilege. He cautioned against its blind acceptance, highlighting potential issues. A pure meritocracy, he argued, could create a new elite based on education and intellectual advantages, potentially perpetuating inequality. Meritocratic rhetoric might mask systemic disadvantages. The intense competition in a meritocratic system can lead to stress and anxiety. Young’s work serves as a critical examination of the limitations of meritocracy as a sole solution for achieving equality of opportunities, emphasizing the need to address systemic inequalities.

Equality of Resources

Equality of resources is a concept that has been discussed and majorly developed by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Michael Walzer three influential political philosophers. While they share some similarities in their approach to the concept, they also have some key differences. Let’s explore their views on the equality of resources in detail.

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice:

John Rawls is best known for his theory of justice outlined in his influential work “A Theory of Justice” (1971). Rawls proposes the idea of a just society based on two key principles:

The Principle of Equal Basic Liberties: Rawls argues that in a just society, individuals should have equal access to a basic set of political and personal liberties. This ensures that all citizens are free to exercise their fundamental rights and participate in political life without discrimination.

The Difference Principle: Rawls acknowledges that economic inequalities may exist in a just society, but they should be structured in a way that benefits the least advantaged. He argues that inequalities in income and wealth are permissible as long as they work to the advantage of the least well-off members of society. In other words, inequalities should be designed to improve the welfare of the most disadvantaged individuals.

Rawls does not explicitly use the term “equality of resources.” Still, his theory incorporates the idea that individuals should have an equal opportunity to access the basic goods and social primary goods, such as income, wealth, education, and health, which can be seen as resources for achieving a good life.

Dworkin’s Vision: Equality of Resources

Ronald Dworkin in his book “Sovereign virtue: Theory and practice of equality” explained his perspective of equality of resources which has been a cornerstone in the realm of distributive justice. 

Dworkin’s theory of equality of resources centers on the idea that individuals should be treated as equals regarding the resources they have at their disposal. Resources encompass not only material wealth but also opportunities, natural talents, and personal abilities. The goal is to ensure a fair distribution of resources among all members of society. Dworkin explained his concept of equality combining Ambition-sensitive equality and Insurance schemes which provides a comprehensive framework for addressing resource distribution in a just society.

Ambition-Sensitive Equality

Dworkin’s ambition-sensitive principle of equality addresses the balance between equalizing initial resources and accounting for individual choices and ambitions. According to this principle, everyone should start with an equal share of resources, regardless of their initial endowments and talents. However, it also considers the notion that people who work harder, take risks, or make ambitious choices should have the opportunity to benefit from their efforts. In essence, ambition-sensitive equality allows for inequalities to arise due to variations in ambition and effort but ensures that these inequalities are not driven by factors beyond an individual’s control.

Insurance Scheme Equality

Dworkin’s insurance scheme equality complements the ambition-sensitive principle by emphasizing the importance of a safety net. Under this principle, individuals should be guaranteed a minimum level of resources, serving as a form of insurance against adverse events in their lives. If someone encounters unexpected hardships or lacks essential resources due to factors beyond their control, society should step in to provide a safety net to maintain a basic standard of living. This safety net helps protect against the arbitrary effects of luck.

Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a broader concept that encompasses Dworkin’s philosophy of justice. It posits that inequalities resulting from factors beyond an individual’s control, such as genetic endowments or circumstances of birth, are unjust and should be rectified. In contrast, inequalities stemming from voluntary choices or efforts should be allowed, as long as they do not worsen the disadvantages of those who are less fortunate. Luck egalitarians believe that people should be held responsible for their choices but not for their luck.

The Envy Test

The envy test is a vital criterion for assessing the fairness of resource distribution in a society. Dworkin suggests that a distribution of resources passes the envy test if no one has justified reasons to envy the resources possessed by others. In other words, a just distribution is one where individuals do not envy those who are better off because they understand that their own circumstances are the result of their choices and ambition rather than factors beyond their control.

Ronald Dworkin’s theory of equality of resources offers a nuanced approach to distributive justice. By combining ambition-sensitive and insurance scheme equality with the principles of luck egalitarianism and the envy test, Dworkin provides a comprehensive framework for addressing resource distribution in a just society. This framework aims to balance the equalization of initial resources, individual responsibility for choices, and the provision of a safety net to ensure that no one is unduly burdened by factors beyond their control. It remains an important and thought-provoking contribution to the field of political philosophy.

Complex Equality – Michael Walzer

In his book “Spheres of Justice” (1983), the renowned political philosopher Michael Walzer introduced the concept of “complex equality.” This concept represents a nuanced perspective on distributive justice that goes beyond mere wealth redistribution. It aims to tackle social and economic inequalities in a more comprehensive manner.

Complex equality acknowledges that various aspects of an individual’s life, such as wealth, education, health, and social opportunities (referred to as social goods), hold different meanings in different societies. Walzer advocates for a more intricate approach to justice that recognizes the intricacy of these disparities. He argues that justice necessitates the fair distribution of social goods like education and healthcare, rather than relying solely on market forces. The responsibility for maintaining the boundaries of each sphere of justice falls upon the state.

According to Walzer, complex inequalities call for a contextual and relational understanding of justice. The distribution of goods and opportunities should consider the specific historical, cultural, and social context of each society. This perspective challenges one-size-fits-all solutions to inequality and underscores the importance of tailored, context-sensitive approaches to creating a fair and equitable society. Therefore, Walzer’s concept of complex equality doesn’t advocate for an entirely egalitarian society but instead seeks to prevent the monopolization of social goods.

The Capabilities Approach: Amartya Sen

In contrast to the resource-based approach, the capabilities approach, championed by renowned Indian economist Amartya Sen in his book “Inequality Reexamined”, redirects the focus from material possessions to the capabilities of individuals. Amartya Sen contends that to lead a fulfilling life, people need various capabilities, including access to food, good health, mobility, communication, and the ability to choose their profession.

The capabilities approach underscores the importance of enabling individuals to achieve their full potential and lead lives characterized by well-being, freedom, and self-determination, irrespective of external circumstances. This approach provides an alternative perspective on achieving equality and justice in society.


The concept of equality is rich and multifaceted, encompassing legal, political, social, economic, and philosophical dimensions. Its evolution throughout history reflects the changing values and ideals of societies. Understanding these various dimensions of equality is essential for addressing the complex challenges of inequality in our modern world.

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