EthiCS: Equality

The following is an edited summary of Stefan Gosepath’s entry on equality in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Extensive references can be found there. In class, we’ll discuss character encodings as an instance of a challenge that is pervasive in design problems of all kinds: balancing efficiency and accessibility. To get at the ethical aspect of this challenge, we’ll think about accessibility as a matter of equality (equality of access), and discuss some different ways in which philosophers have thought about the importance of equality and the ethical principles governing decisions about how to balance equality with other desirable features of a system. The reading is meant to give you an introduction to some of the key ideas we will discuss in condensed form: in class we will spend some time clarifying and expanding these concepts and relating them to the context of the module.

— Zach Gabor

Please also see our Unicode presentation. — Eddie

Defining the Concept

Equality is a contested concept: “People who praise it or disparage it disagree about what they are praising or disparaging” (Ronald Dworkin). Our first task is therefore to provide a clear definition of equality in the face of widespread misconceptions about its meaning as a political idea.

The terms “equality,” “equal,” and “equally” signify a qualitative relationship. “Equality” (or “equal”) signifies correspondence between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect, but not all respects, i.e., regarding one specific feature, with differences in other features. ‘Equality’ needs to thus be distinguished from ‘identity’: equality implies similarity rather than ‘sameness.’

Sociological and economic analyses of (in-)equality mainly pose the questions of how inequalities can be determined and measured and what their causes and effects are. In contrast, social and political philosophy is in general concerned mainly with the following questions: what kind of equality, if any, should be offered, and to whom and when?

‘Equality’ and ‘equal’ are incomplete predicates that necessarily generate one question: equal in what respect? Every comparison presumes a concrete attribute defining the respect in which the equality applies. This relevant comparative standard represents a ‘variable’ (or ‘index’) of the concept of equality that needs to be specified in each particular case; differing conceptions of equality emerge from one or another descriptive or normative moral standard.

It helps to think of the idea of equality—or for that matter inequality—as an issue of social justice not as a single principle, but as a complex group of principles forming the basic core of egalitarianism (doctrines based on a background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status). In any real historical context, it is clear that no single notion of equality can sweep the field.

Conceptions of Distributive Equality: Equality of What?

Every effort to interpret the concept of equality and to apply the principles of equality demands a precise measure of the parameters of equality. We need to know the dimensions within which the striving for equality is morally relevant. Here are a few of the important notions of distributive equality, each offering a different answer to one question: in the field of distributive justice, what should be equalized, or what should be the parameter or “currency” of equality?

Simple Equality and Objections to Equality in General

Simple equality, meaning that everyone is furnished with the same material level of goods and services, represents a strict position as far as distributive justice is concerned and is generally rejected as untenable.

Simple equality fails because of problems that are raised in regards to equality in general. It is useful to review these problems, as they require resolution in any plausible approach to equality.

Index choice: We need adequate indices for the measurement of the equality of the goods to be distributed. If meat is to be distributed, what kinds of food should be given to vegetarians, and under what exchange rate? Money can serve as a common index, but only inadequately.

Inefficiency: Simple equality distorts economic incentives, producing inefficiency grounded in a waste of assets arising from the administrative costs of redistribution. Equality and efficiency need to be placed in a balanced relation.

Moral objections: A strict and mechanical equal distribution between all individuals does not sufficiently take into account the differences among individuals and their situations. Since individuals desire different things, why should everyone receive the same? Intuitively, for example, we can recognize that a sick person has other claims than a healthy person, and furnishing each with the same things would be mistaken. With simple equality, personal freedoms are unacceptably limited and distinctive individual qualities insufficiently regarded; in this manner they are in fact unequally regarded. Furthermore, persons not only have a moral right to their own needs being considered, but a right and a duty to take responsibility for their own decisions and their consequences.

Relevance of motives: Simple equality is very often associated with equality of results (although these are two distinct concepts). However, to strive only for equality of results is problematic, because it can ignore morally relevant questions of motive. If you strike me, the pain I feel may be considered bad in itself, but the moral status of your act will also depend on whether you were (morally) allowed or obliged to strike (for instance, to prevent me from committing a greater harm). Similarly, acts that are otherwise morally permissible may warrant condemnation when taken from a morally bad motive; consider helping someone in hopes of gaining their confidence so as to later swindle them. What is true of individual actions (or their omission) is generally required to be true mutatis mutandis of social institutions and circumstances, including collective social actions (or their omission) that lead to greater equality of results. These social institutions should be assessed not solely on the basis of information about how they affect individual quality of life, but also on the collective motives built in to the institutional design.

Uniformity: Finally, there is a danger of (strict) equality leading to uniformity, rather than to a respect for pluralism and democracy. In the contemporary debate, this complaint has been mainly articulated in feminist and multiculturalist theory. Equality, as usually understood and practiced, is constituted in part by a denial of differences; as a result it seems less useful as an antidote to relations of domination. Proposing a connection between equality and pluralism, some theories hold that reasons for equality can only speak in favor of distribution of specific types of goods in specific spheres, not in several or all spheres.

Instead of simple equality, we need a concept of more complex equality: a concept managing to resolve the above problems through a distinction of various classes of goods, a separation of spheres, and a differentiation of relevant criteria.


Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that right actions are just those that maximize happiness, broadly construed: “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Bentham). It is possible to interpret utilitarianism as concretizing moral equality, since it in a way offers the same consideration to the interests of all human beings. From the utilitarian perspective, since everyone counts as one and no one as more than one, the interests of all should be treated equally without consideration of contents of interest or an individual’s material situation.

The utilitarian conception of equal treatment has been criticized as inadequate by many opponents of utilitarianism. What is here at play is an argument involving “offensive” and “expensive” taste: a person cannot expect others to sustain his or her desires at the expense of their own. Rather, according to generally shared conviction, equal treatment consistently requires a basis of equal rights and resources that cannot be taken away from one person, whatever the desire of others, and many hold that that justice entails according no value to interests insofar as they conflict with justice (the basis of equal rights). According to this view, equal treatment has to consist of everyone being able to claim a fair portion, and not in all interests having the same weight in disposal over my portion. But strict utilitarians cannot admit any restrictions on interests based on morals or justice. Since utilitarianism, by merging the interests of different people with the aim of maximizing total happiness, neglects the separateness of persons, it may not contain a proper interpretation of moral equality as equal respect for each individual.

Equality of Resources

Resource equality holds individuals responsible for their decisions and actions, though not for circumstances beyond their control—race, sex, physical appearance, but also intelligence and social position—which thus are excluded as distributive criteria. Equal opportunity is insufficient because it does not compensate for unequal innate gifts. What applies for social circumstances should also apply for such gifts, both these factors being purely arbitrary from a moral point of view.

Human beings should have the same initial expectations of “basic goods,” i.e., all-purpose goods, though this in no way precludes ending up with different quantities of such goods or resources as a result of personal economic decisions and actions. When prime importance is accorded an assurance of equal basic freedoms and rights, inequalities are just when they fulfill two provisos: on the one hand, they have to be linked to offices and positions open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; on the other hand, they must offer the greatest possible advantage to the least advantaged members of society (the “difference principle”).

Equality and Responsibility

Most of today’s egalitarians are pluralistic, meaning they recognize other values besides equality. Many egalitarians regard the moral significance of choice and responsibility as one of the most important other values besides equality. They hold that it is bad—unjust or unfair—for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own, and therefore they strive to eliminate involuntary disadvantages for which the sufferer cannot be held responsible. Equality of responsibility relates to resource equality, but its focus on responsibility rather than “basic goods” may imply that individuals who make bad decisions may be left far worse off under an equality of responsibility than under resource equality.

Capabilities Approaches

Theories that limit themselves to the equal distribution of basic means—this in the hope of doing justice to the different goals of all human beings—are often criticized as fetishistic, in that they focus on means, rather than on what individuals gain with these means. The value of goods for an individual depends on objective possibilities, the natural environment, and individual capacities. Hence in contrast to the resourcist approach, Amartya Sen proposes orientating distribution around “capabilities to achieve functionings,” i.e., the various things that a person manages to do or be in leading a life: adequate nourishment, good health, the ability to move about freely or to appear in public without shame, and so forth. Also important here is the real freedom to acquire well-being—a freedom represented in the capability to oneself choose forms of achievement and the combination of “functionings.” For Sen, capabilities are thus the measure of an equality of capabilities human beings enjoy to lead their lives.