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Importance of Equality

Problem of equality and inequality existed in political science since ancient times. Aristotle discusses inequality ‘real or imagined’ to be the main cause of revolution by people. Modern idea of welfare state is also based on equality  but it incorporates the idea of capacity building in contrast to traditional understanding.

The principle of equality may be considered at two levels.

1] Foundational equality

It deals with the ground on which demand of equality be founded. What is the logic behind claim to human equality?
Religion advocates everyone to be children of God and equally entitled to the property of God. Thus equality should be foundational principle.
However, sometimes it is argued that idea of equality does not derive its support from nature. Rather we see inequalities everywhere in nature. Survival of the fittest is the rule of nature. On this grounds often liberals want to expand their freedom in pursuing their ambitions even at the cost of human dignity.
In modern times equality is often grounded on the basis of common humanity. According to Kantian tradition, human dignity is categorical imperative and thus is inviolable. 

2] Distributive equality

It deals with equality at the stage of distribution. How to distribute resources and opportunities to achieve equality.
At one extreme thinkers like Aristotle, Plato believe in natural inequality. Plato advocates his ‘myth of metals’ and thus reduces any scope for equality, Aristotle prefers to maintain status quo. He even feels that system of slavery is good for both – master as well as slave.
Liberals advocate equality of opportunity, creating level playing field and then leaving it to individuals to determine how do they make use of such opportunities.
Social liberals like Amartya Sen go one step ahead and talk about capacity building. According to them, just equality of opportunity is not enough but disadvantaged section needs extra support.
At other extreme, socialist talk about artificial equality. Huge interference of state in personal as well as political sphere to ensure equality. However this idea remains utopia.

Evolution of the concept of equality

1] Equality before law.
It is a legalistic concept. It advocates that in front of law, everyone should be treated equally regardless of his political, social and economic position. Law is supreme i.e. Lex Rex.

2] Equality of opportunity, aka Proportional equality.
It is an important tenet of Social Liberalism. Social Liberalist believe that all human beings have equal social and political rights. They regard equality as basic principle of public life.
It advocates that the role of the state is to create equal opportunities for everyone and then it is up to them how they make use of situation thus created. Creating conditions in which everyone has same starting point by ensuring people’s access to basic goods like Education, Health care, Housing etc.

3] Equality of outcomes – (Marxism) – Mute equality.
It is a concept proposed by Marxists or radical egalitarians. Equality of outcomes advocates equal distribution of rewards such as income, wealth and other social goods. In the words of Marx – “From everyone according to his ability, to everyone according to his needs”.
However in reality people differ in their abilities, abilities and talents.  Equality of outcomes will result in killing incentives among more competent. It will give rise to the feeling of injustice amongst those who are advantaged. This would results into lower production and it will also affect the state of poor. Thus it never came into being and remains utopia.

Schools of thought of equality

1] Liberal
2] Marxist
3] Feminist – differentiated equality.
4] Communitarian
5] Multiculturalist – differentiated equality and differentiated system. Will Kymlicka, Bhiku Parekh.

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Equality in Liberalism

1] Ronald Dworkin / Equality of resources

No other value has been under threat in liberalism as the value of equality.


Dworkin has highlighted that equality is more fundamental than liberty. Thus liberalism is not against equality rather is based on equality. Liberty is hollow in the absence of equality hence like Isaiah Berlin, human dignity /equality, is considered as core of liberalism.

One of the core issue in liberty theory is making people equal in what sense?

Utilitarians say that make people equal in terms of welfare. Welfare means pleasure. Means give opportunity to the people where their pleasure can be equal. Dworkin finds it illogical. He gives the story where – Person has two sons, one son is simple, believes in simple way of life, the other son is having rich taste. To keep their pleasures equal person should be giving more to the second son, otherwise he will not be having equal amount of pleasure. Thus, above distribution does not appear to be logical and just.
If we look from perspective of libertarians, capitalist have bigger expenditure and they should be left with more income in comparison to the workers.

Dworkin’s theory

Dworkin is critic of Nozick’s theory and is inspired by Rawls’s theory. What is Nozick’s theory? 1. The entitlement theory where the role of the state is limited to regulation, rectification. Thus there is no scope for distributive justice.  2. He justifies complete entitlement on man’s property.  3. Like classical liberals, believing in ‘drunkard in the gutter’, Nozick also believes that people should be held responsible for the choices they make. Dworkin’s criticism. People should be held responsible for the choices they make but only the choices they have made in the chosen circumstances and not unchosen circumstances. Dworkin also suggests that we have to compensate only once. There is no need to compensate the person again and again. Hence Dorking supports the idea of ‘just initial distribution’. For that he prescribes envy test. Dworkin has explained his theory of justice in a book SOVEREIGN VIRTUE through ‘A political section’. Suppose some people are travelling on a ship. The ship gets wrecked. It cannot move further. People see an island, they have no chance of going back to their original home. Hence they decide to start their life on the island. The island is unhabituated and full of resources. People decide to start the life and build a just society to avoid war.

According to Dworkin, the best way to decide who should get what is auction. Only through auction (competition), we come to understand the real value. (price discovery).
Dworkin talks about two types of auctions.
1] Ambition sensitive auction – means people should have choices to decide which good they want.
2] Endowment sensitive auction – auction to be just has to take into account people’s endowments or natural capacities.
For the purpose of auction, Dworkin gives the idea of equitable and not just equal distribution of clamp-shells/resources. Dworkin suggests initial distribution should be fair. There is no need to compensate person again and again. He describes envy-test to find out whether initial distribution fair or not. (A disadvantaged person will envy the advantaged person. But if he is compensated for his disadvantages by more resources, he will not envy anymore).

Dworkin gives the concept of luck. There are two types of luck. 1) Brute luck – Man has no choice.  2) Option luck – where man has choice.
Since there is no society, there is no social disadvantage hence he talks about natural disadvantage. Some people may have natural disadvantages or physical disabilities. They would require to keep some clamp-shells to offset their natural disadvantage. Hence to make initial distribution fair, free from envy he suggests to give extra clamp shells as a compensation for brute luck. Once initial distribution is made fair, all will enter into the ambition sensitive auction. Value of a good will be decided on the basis of how many people want to posses that good. Who will get that good will depend on who is the highest bidder.
The amount of clamp shells person is willing to use determines how much that person wants the particular good. What is the intensity of possessing that good. In the bidding, some will get an some will lose. Now it is a matter of option luck. There is no need to compensate at this level.

Dworkin also gives the concept of insurance. According to him, it is natural for the people to keep some clamp-shells to offset the impact of even option luck. This pool will be used by those who happen to at disadvantage in ambition sensitive auction.

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2] Amartya Sen / Equality of capabilities

Amartya Sen goes beyond the idea of equality of resources. It is to be noted that concept of equality is a evolving concept. The concept of equality is linked to the concept of human dignity. Even when we give equal resources, it is not necessary that we achieve equality. People differ in terms of capabilities. With equal resources, some people will perform better because their capabilities will be more, hence state has to provide equality with respect to capabilities.
There are two distinctive features of capability approach.
1] It is based on social choice. It takes into account real purpose. In reality different persons may suffer from different types of deprivations. It also takes into account social factors. e.g. Even equal resources may not give equal sense of well-being to girls and boys in India. Girls in India face more deprivation than boys. Thus capability approach takes into account social situation also. Capability approach takes multidimensional view of poverty and not just absence of resources of income.
2] It is a realization focused approach. According to Amartya Sen, the purpose of life is happiness. Happiness means well-being. He gives the concept of being and doing. Being means existence. Person should realize his importance. Person should get respect from others (the state of being loved and respected.) Similarly the concept of doing shows person doing what he wants to do. It is different from what he is compelled to do. e.g. Fasting is a choice, hunger is a deprivation. Fasting gives person a sense of well-being, hunger is a deprivation.
Thus capability approach does not look at people as a means of economic growth. It takes people as the end of economic growth. Thus Amartya Sen defines development in terms of freedom. Freedom in terms of capabilities or functioning.

Affirmative action

Positive intervention by the state. Affirmative action denotes governments welfare policies in favour of disadvantaged section. In every society, there can be certain sections, which have been ‘historically disadvantaged’. e.g. Blacks in USA, Dalits in India. This is a section which cannot come at par with the others – so called forward section or advantaged until and unless some external intervention or catalyst is provided.
Affirmative action has to be class based rather than individual based. It is meant for the community as a whole which has suffered deprivation. e.g. In case of India the members of Dalit community are eligible for affirmative action policies like quota in jobs, educational institutions. Poor brahmin will not qualify because his community has not suffered any historical disadvantage. He may be poor but could not come into the category of disadvantaged section. It does not meant that he is not eligible for state’s assistance. Nature of assistance will change, he will be eligible for benefits under poverty alleviation program.
Affirmative action has to be differentiated from ‘preferential policies’. Examples of preferential policies are giving reservation to the dominant caste like Jats in Haryana or Marathas in Maharashtra. Sri Lankan govts. policy towards Sinhalese an also be seen as preferential policy. Thus benefitting the dominating section is a preferential policy and disadvantaged section is affirmative action.

Affirmative action policies like quota in India are highly contested policies. According to Ramchandra Guha, debates on reservation generate more heat than light. Similarly Pratap Bhanu Mehta suggest that reservation policy makes us immoral. Our opinions in public are very different from our opinions in private.
Those who are against reservation policy, they believe that 1. It compromises merit.   2. It is reverse discrimination.  3. Type of compensatory justice. Critics believe that reservation policies are political gimmicks and do not bring real benefits.
It is to be noted that reservation policy will increase justice or not, will depend on how it is conceptualized. How it is implemented.
e.g. In Ramsingh case (Jat reservation case), Supreme Court has directed that government should identify the new vulnerable classes like transgenders. There is a petition to increase creamy layer criteria even amongst scheduled caste. SC in Ashok Kumar case examining the validity of reservation in higher educational institutions has pointed out that reservation policies are enabling policies. Enabling policy means it cannot continue for a permanent basis. Reservation policy is a enabling policy means that we should be able to come to a position where we can claim that we have achieved equality in the society, now there is no difference between backwards and forwards, we have successfully uplifted and reservation is no more needed.

Communitarian View of equality / Complex equality

It is called as complex equality. This term is given by Michael Walzer SPHERES OF JUSTICE.
Context of Communitarian approach: Criticism of libertarian / liberal approach to equality. Specifically the theory of justice given by Rawls.
Objection of communitarians? 
1] Rawls believed that there can be a universalist understanding of justice.
There cannot be universalist conception because person’s concept of right and wrong is shaped by his community. e.g. Michael Walzer suggests that justice is not the science of homogenization but art of differentiation. (communitarian view)
2] Rawls believed that justice as fairness as a principle of justice is most rational with respect to all spheres of social system. All spheres include political, economic, educational system or any other system which comes within the scope of public sphere.
According to Walzer, ‘one size fit for all’ may not be a good approach. He held that different goods ought to be distributed differently in accordance to the different procedures.

What is complex equality

Walzer has given the concept of complex equality. According to Walzer, equality is a complex term rather than simple. Sometimes we equalize people by differentiating.
Different goods ought to be distributed differently in accordance to the different procedures. Which means there has to be different principles for different spheres of life. Not only different principles for different spheres, even within single sphere, there can be different principles at different level. e.g. In education we can have universalization at basic level whereas privatization at higher levels.
Complex equality also suggests to ‘block the exchanges’. He suggests that the benefits which a person has in one sphere, should not be used to gain advantages in other spheres. e.g. Suppose a person wins election, he gets advantage in political sphere over the other. However it will not make any adverse impact on the person who lost elections, until and unless the person who is politically powerful uses his position to gain benefits in other spheres like getting tenders for the persons of his family.

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The relationship between Liberty, Equality and Justice

Liberty, Equality, Justice are the foundational values in political philosophy. They are quiet interdependent and overlapping.
It is to be noted that unlike natural sciences, the concepts in political science are ‘essentially contested’. If we look at the concept of value pluralism given by Isaiah Berlin, values are incommensurable and inherently pluralistic. Hence these issues can be discussed from different perspectives.

Position of Classical Liberals and Neo Liberals:

They give primacy to liberty as found in Nozick’s criticism of Rawls theory as well as his own entitlement theory. It does not mean that classical and neo liberals do not talk about equality. However their understanding of equality is limited to equality before law and equality of opportunity.
According to them state making attempts to achieve social and economic equality undermines liberty and thus goes against the principles of justice.


Socialists look at classical liberals concept of equality as formal procedural. They define freedom in terms of freedom from necessities. For them, just society means a state of perfect social and economic equality which is a precondition for absolute freedom.

Modern Liberals and Social Liberals:

Modern Liberalism represent the golden mean between the classical liberals and socialists. Along with the idea of negative liberty, they include the idea of positive liberty in terms of capacity building through affirmative action policies.
They realize the limitations of equality of opportunity concept in the absence of the level playing field in the society. Hence they support positive discrimination in favour of the least advantaged. Rawls theory of justice as fairness show the positive liberal approach towards the relationship between the three values. Justice as an Idea incorporate the principle of maximum equal liberty, fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle.

Test Your Knowledge!

1] What is the main cause of revolution, according to Aristotle?
a) Slavery
b) Poverty
c) Inequality
d) War

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Ans: c) Inequality

2] What is the ground of equality in modern time?
a) Common humanity
b) Nature
c) Law
d) Conventions

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Ans: a) Common humanity

3] Which of the following statements is wrong?
a) Plato and Aristotle believed in natural inequality
b) Socialists talk about artificial equality
c) Amartya Sen gives the concept of capacity building
d) None of the above

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Ans: d) None of the above

4] Which of the following is a legalistic concept?
a) Equality before law
b) Equality of outcomes
c) Equality of opportunity
d) Concept of human dignity

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Ans: a) Equality before law

5] What is the drawback of equality of outcome?
a) It lowers down production
b) It gives rise to feeling of injustice among those who are advantaged
c) It gives incentives to all people
d) Both a and c

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Ans: d) Both a and c

6] Which of these following principles does Dworkin support?
a) Just initial distribution
b) Equality of Outcome
c) Entitlement Theory
d) Multiple compensation to achieve equality

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Ans: a) Just initial distribution

7] What is the main purpose of envy-test as propounded by Dworkin?
a) To criticize utilitarianism
b) To devise a formula to achieve equality of outcome
c) To find out whether initial distribution is fair or not
d) To check whether everyone in society is free

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Ans: c) To find out whether initial distribution is fair or not

8] Amartya Sen’s concept of equality focuses on
a) human dignity
b) just initial distribution
c) equality of resources
d) Government

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Ans: a) human dignity

9] Which of the following statements is correct?
a) Capability approach takes multidimensional view of poverty
b) It explains development in terms of freedom
c) Capability approach is a realization focused approach
d) All of the above

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Ans: d) All of the above

10] What does affirmative action denote?
a) Poverty alleviation programme
b) Reducing custom duties on imports
c) Infrastructural development
d) Government welfare policies in favour of disadvantaged sections

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Ans: d) Government welfare policies in favour of disadvantaged sections

11] Affirmative action is taken for
a) Individual
b) Economically weaker sections
c) Socially and Educationally disadvantaged communities
d) Dominating sections of society

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Ans: c) Socially and Educationally disadvantaged communities

12] What does complex equality mean?
a) Having different principles of justice for different spheres of life
b) Different principles of justice at different levels even within a single sphere of life
c) Having a universalistic principle of justice
d) Both a and c

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Ans: d) Both a and c

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Shivam Kumar Tiwari

In question no 12 , answer should be A and B but there is no such option, rather the provided answer A and C is wrong .


It is endowment insensitive auction and not endowment sensitive auction

Shantanu Pawar

I believe Dworkin prescribed Envy test not Envy debt!


what is the meaning of endownment sensitive auction sir?


SIR, no Multiculturalist view is provided.

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