Egalitarianism

Oxford Bibliographies in Political Science (2018)
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Abstract

Equality as a bare concept refers to two or more distinct things or people being the same in some dimension. Different forms of equality are distinguished by the dimension that is held to be the same. Within political theory, three main forms of equality can be distinguished: moral equality, political equality, and substantive equality. “Moral equality” refers to each individual having the same inherent dignity as a human being, and therefore being worthy of respect. “Political equality,” by contrast, refers to each individual having the same basic rights of involvement in political processes, e.g., by voting or running for office. Modern political theories generally accept that each individual has moral and political equality. The distinguishing feature of egalitarianism is its interpretation of this equal status as requiring substantive equality, i.e., that each individual be placed in the same social or economic conditions. Egalitarianism is an inherently normative view, and more specifically, a view about distributive justice—that is, about the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens. The account of these benefits and burdens varies from one egalitarian theory to another. For instance, some egalitarians believe that levels of benefit should be measured in terms of resources, others in terms of well-being, and still others in terms of basic capabilities. Egalitarians also disagree on whether benefits should be distributed equally or whether equality of substantive condition in some other sense (i.e., equal opportunity or equal social standing) might be sufficient. Accordingly, each egalitarian theory has its own account of equality. These theories as a whole contrast with non-egalitarian theories, such as right libertarianism or conservativism, which deny that people’s condition should be made equal in any substantive sense. In practical terms, egalitarianism is strongly associated with the political left, but different brands of egalitarianism are associated with different brands of left-wing politics, from traditional socialism or social democracy to a less distribution-focused politics of identity. This article provides an overview of egalitarianism, primarily focusing on its development in contemporary political theory.

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Author Profiles

Carl Knight
University of Glasgow
Andreas Albertsen
Aarhus University

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