• The idea of equality is the central feature of modern political thought. Classical and Medieval thinkers considered hierarchy as natural and inevitable while Modern thinkers started with the assumption that all human beings have equal moral worth. Aristotle, for instance, discovered that ‘inequality’ was a cause of rebellion in many states. He defined justice as “treating equals equally and unequals unequally”. It insisted on recognition and maintenance of existing inequalities in society—between master and slave, between rich and poor, between morally superior and morally inferior, and so on. 
  • The modern idea of equality, on the contrary, seeks the reduction in inequalities insofar as they can be proved to be unjust according to the prevailing social consciousness. 
  • Today Equality is a highly complex concept; there are as many forms of equality as there are ways of comparing the conditions of human existence. Example: moral equality, legal equality, political equality, social equality, sexual equality, racial equality and so forth. 
  • Moreover, the principle of equality has assumed a number of forms, the most significant of which have been formal equality, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. We will discuss these concepts one by one in this chapter. 

“Equality is basically a process of equalization. So first of all equality implies the deficiency of special rights. Secondly, it implies that everyone should get enough opportunities for growth.” -Harold Laski 

History of Equality Debate

  • In classical Greece, Aristotle in his book “Politics” distinguished three social classes and noted the significant difference between citizens and slaves, men and women in terms of rational and civic capacities. Participation in the Polis was restricted to the citizens only. Similarly, in Hindu Society, according to the classical text, the society was divided into four (Varnas). All rights and duties were based upon this classification. 
  • Stoicism
    • Greek philosopher Zeno founded the Stoic School in Athens in the early 3rd century BC and supported equality among men. It is one of the earliest examples of doctrine of equality in western political thought. The Stoics concluded that all human beings possess reason and thereby all mankind is differentiated from other animals and is united. Humanity does not admit of degree. As such all men are equal as men. The Stoic philosophers gave the idea of universal brotherhood and they were opposed to slavery.
  • During medieval feudalism, legal privileges were based upon status and birth. In short, different types of inequalities have been long enduring, giving rise to the notion that inequality is inevitable in social relations. Different ideologies justified inequality on grounds of superior race, ancestry, age, sex, religion, military strength, culture, wealth, knowledge, etc. 
  • From the 15th to the 17th centuries, the cry for equality was against the landowners’ status and religious intolerance and was raised by Puritans, Levellers, doctrine of natural rights and John Locke. Simultaneously, the movements of Renaissance and Reformation raised a powerful voice against the legal privileges of the clergy and nobility based upon birth and demanded equality by birth. The French revolution and American civil war promoted the idea of equality. 
    • “Men are born free and equal and they are free and equal in their rights” 
  • In the modern world, equality has been accepted as a basic principle of organising human life. The economic and social dimension of equality emerged during the nineteenth century and was the result of conflicts and struggles between the capitalist/ industrial classes on one hand and workers and peasants on the other. As a result, along with legal equality, demand for economic and social equality was raised by liberal socialists and Marxist writers alike such as J S Mill, TH Green, Babeuf, Karl Marx etc 
  • In the twentieth century, the demand for equality became more persistent. Today, it has become the sine qua non for the socio-economic mobility typical of a highly industrialist society. The national liberation movements against imperialism and colonialism, movements against apartheid, socialist revolutions in Russia, China and East European countries brought the issue of equality to the forefront. 
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 extended the recognition of equality which had hitherto been accepted as the aim of all strata of industrialised countries to the people of the third world countries who had been discriminated against, thus contributing to the eventual emergence of an international society based upon socio-economic equality. 
  • Today, every modern political constitution has some notion of human equality inscribed as a fundamental law and every political theory of any importance has contributed to the nature and feasibility of socio-economic equality. 

According to Turner, inequality is multi-dimensional and the elimination of one aspect of inequality often leads to the exaggeration of other aspects of social, political and cultural inequalities.

What is equality? 

  • Like Liberty, rights etc the concept of Equality can also be understood in its negative and positive aspects. Ever since the rise of the idea of equality, it has been engaged in dismantling certain privileges whether they were feudal, social, economic, etc. 
  • Negatively, equality was associated with ‘the end of such privileges’. 
  • Positively, it meant ‘the availability of opportunity’ so that everybody could have an equal chance to develop his personality. 
  • According to Harold Laski equality means: 
    • Absence of special privileges. 
    • Adequate opportunities are laid open to all to realise the implications of one’s own personality. 
    • All must have access to social benefits and no one should be restricted on any ground. 
    • Absence of economic and social exploitation. 
  • Similarly, For Barker, ‘The principle of equality, accordingly means that whatever conditions are guaranteed to me in the form of rights shall also and in the same measure be guaranteed to others and that whatever rights are given to others shall also be given to me’. 
  • According to E.F. Carritt, ‘Equality is just to treat men as equal until some reason other than preference such as need, capacity or desert has been shown to the contrary’. 
  • According to Raphael, ‘The right to equality properly is a right to the equal satisfaction of basic human needs, including the need to develop and use capacities which are specifically human’. 
  • Recently, Bryan Turner in his book “Equality” has given a comprehensive meaning of equality in terms of following: 
    • Fundamental equality of persons is: 
      • Common to cultural, religious and moral traditions typically expressed in statements such as ‘all are equal in the eyes of God’. 
      • Concerned with the equality of men as men; something called ‘human nature’, ‘human dignity’, ‘personality’ or ‘soul’ by virtue of which they must be treated as fundamentally equal. 
      • Found in the Marxist tradition, it is claimed that all human beings are defined by praxis, i.e. all human beings are knowledgeable, conscious and practical agents. 
    • Equality of opportunity 
      • This means that the access to important social institutions should be open to all on universalistic grounds, especially by achievement and talent. 
      • This type of equality believes in meritocracy, where the occupational structure of society is filled on the basis of merit in terms of universal criteria of achievement and not on the basis of age, sex, wealth, caste, religion, etc. 
    • Equality of conditions where there is an attempt to make the conditions of life equal. 
    • Equality of outcome of results 
      • It is the most radical notion of equality. 
      • It means that through legislation and other political means, equalities of results are achieved regardless of the starting point or natural ability. 

Equality: Fair Treatment vs Equal Treatment

  • Libertarians value equal treatment, e.g. Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia) is of the view that “unjustly taking someone’s holdings for redistribution violates their rights”. He speaks against “Progressive taxation” and calls it similar to bonded labour that amounts to the unjust treatment of the Rich. 
  • However equal treatment alone does not make all in society equal, as different people have different starting points owing to historical discrimination for example, Dalits, Tribals in India or Blacks in the USA or Women, LGBTQs in general. Therefore, there is a need for positive discrimination to ensure fair treatment. 
  • Rawls in his theory of justice has acknowledged equality as fair treatment and given the difference principle that makes disadvantaged ones better off. He even justifies discrimination thereby establishing Democratic equality between Liberty and Equality. 
  • Dworkin has advocated resource egalitarianism. For him, internal inequalities e.g. disabilities also need to be considered. He posits that a person should be responsible only for voluntary choices and not choices made under un-chosen circumstances. Proposing the Envy test he argues that only those distributions are to be considered fair that does not give rise to envy. (Dworkin’s resource egalitarianism has been explained in detail in later part of this chapter) 
  • Amartya Sen (capability approach) argues that equal treatment is not enough as people vary in abilities to convert equal resources into functioning. For fairness, we need equal capabilities. 

Dimension of Equality

  • Legal equality 
  • Political Equality 
  • Economic Equality 
  • Social Equality 

Legal equality 

  • Legal equality can be described in two ways: Equality before law and Equal protection of law. All individuals should be treated equally by the law irrespective of their caste, race, colour, gender, religion, social background and so on. This principle ignores the fact that handicaps imposed by caste, gender or social background could be so overwhelming that individuals would not be able to benefit from the formal equality that the law bestows upon all individuals. 
Equality before law Equal protection of law 
Equal subject of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary law courts’. Law will not make any distinction between the people 
‘like should be treated alike’ right to equal treatment in similar circumstances 
it has a negative connotation. It is positive in connotation 
law does not discriminate on the basis of personal attributes such as birth, position, gender etc Equal protection requires affirmative action by the state towards unequal by providing facilities and opportunities. 

Political Equality 

  • According to Lipson, normally, many had always been governed by few for the benefits of the few. Political equality is associated with democratic institutions and the right to participate in the political process. The demand for political equality is summarised in ‘one man one vote’ which is the basic principle of political equality. 
  • Its wider dimensions are 
    • The right to vote, 
    • The right to stand for elections, 
    • To hold public office 
    • Right to express opinion 
    • Right to form association/ party with no distinction (made) on the basis of caste, colour, sex, religion, language etc 
  • According to Laski, political equality means the authority which exerts that power must be subject to rules of democratic governance. 

Economic Equality 

  • The economic equality of early liberals was equality of choosing one’s trade or profession irrespective of his caste, creed or economic status. It was also understood as freedom of contract or that everybody is equal in so far as the contractual obligations are concerned. 
  • According to Laski, economic equality is largely a problem of proportion. Economic equality is two folds: 
    • It is a matter of status and 
    • It is a matter of property and income. 
  • With regard to property and income the issue is what methods the state should seek to correct inequality in their distribution. The liberal state through its policy of mixed economy, methods of differential taxation, regulation and raising the wages by methods of social expenditure and other welfare services has been making corrections in the wide disparities of wealth. The state taxes the rich to provide welfare to the poor. 
  • However, Liberal socialists feel that in spite of the fact that state action has resulted in greater diffusion of property, the permanent ownership of capital resources and the disparity between rich and poor continues to increase. 

Social Equality

  • Social equality is concerned with equality of opportunity for every individual for the development of his personality. It means abolition of all kinds of discrimination based upon caste, creed, religion, language, race, sex, education, etc. 
  • It involves questions such as how the state should promote equality of different classes, castes etc. How gender equality can be ensured. How equal pay for equal work can be ensured removing stereotypes of society. 
  • Social equality also depends on accessibility of public services, education, health etc on equal basis to facilitate social mobility. This can be enhanced by affirmative action of the state. 
  • Equality Vs Equity
    • The word equality is defined as “the state or quality of being equal; correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability.”
    • The word equity is defined as “the quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality” or “something that is fair and just.”
    • In modern times, the usage of the word equity has increased due to concerns about social justice and a desire for fairness for historically oppressed groups.
    • In terms of the law, minority groups often have technically equal rights but are still treated unfairly due to unequal access to resources or opposition from dominant groups who deny others equal representation while still acting within the law.

Formal Equality

  • Most important defender of equality is English philosopher John Locke, who advocated natural equality. Immanuel Kant extended this idea by describing universalism and equality as a consequence of this universal humanity, all individuals should be treated equally. 
  • Formal equality can be called legal equality. All individuals should be treated equally by the law irrespective of their caste, race, colour, gender, religion, social background and so on. While this was a welcome step in the fight against special privileges based on race, gender, social background and other similar criteria, it remained a very limited notion on its own. 
  • Marx in his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’ contended that formal equality while being a significant step forward could not bring about human emancipation. While the market did free people from the barriers imposed by social rank and other similar categories, it did nevertheless create differences based on classes that were upheld by the existence of private property. This implied that individuals had starkly different market values and hence, Marxists describe formal equality in this context as market equality, which is little more than a façade to disguise the deeply unequal nature of society. 
  • Equality of What? 
    • Equality of opportunity 
    • Equality of capability 
    • Equality of outcome 

Equality of opportunity 

  • The idea of equal opportunities can be found in the writings of Plato, who proposed that social position should be based strictly upon individual ability and effort, and that the educational system should offer all children an equal chance to realise their talents. 
  • Equality of opportunity means the removal of all obstacles that prevent personal self-development, a right that should surely be enjoyed by all citizens. The implication is that equality requires that all individuals begin from a level playing field. Social democrats and modern liberals believe that such equal opportunity is the cornerstone of social justice. 
  • Equality of opportunity points towards an meritocratic inegalitarian ideal. Thus, the consequences of this need not be egalitarian at all. Precisely because everyone started equally, unequal outcomes are acceptable and legitimized. This inequality would then be explained in terms of differing natural talents, ability to work hard or even luck. 
  • This idea rests on the distinction between nature and convention, the argument being that distinctions that emerge on the basis of different natural qualities like talents, skills, hard work and so on are morally defensible. 
  • However, differences that emerge out of conventions or socially created differences like poverty, homelessness are not. 
  • The underlying assumption is that so long as the competition has been fair, advantage itself is beyond criticism. Egalitarians work with a wider definition of equality of opportunity that would give everyone the means to develop their capacities in a satisfying and fulfilling way. An egalitarian society would not deny to some people the genuine opportunity to develop their capacities. 
  • However, some have argued that a rigorous and consistent application of the principle may lead to widespread state intervention in social and personal life, threatening individual liberty and perhaps violating the principle of formal equality. For example, the family could be regarded as one of the major obstacles to the achievement of equal opportunities through the inheritance of wealth and the provision of different levels of parental encouragement, social stability and material affluence. 

Equality of capability 

Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach
  • Amartya Sen’s capability approach is a moral framework for deciding the type of equality we want to achieve. It proposes that social arrangements should be evaluated primarily according to the extent of freedom people have to promote as well as achieving functions they value.
  • Amartya Sen’s capability theory approach is a theoretical framework that involves two core normative claims.
    • First, the assumption that freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance.
    • Second, that freedom to achieve well-being must be understood in terms of people with capabilities.
  • The capabilities approach goes directly to the quality of life that people can actually achieve. This quality of life is analyzed in terms of the central concepts of “functioning” and “capability”. Sen argues that the correct approach to assessing how well people are doing is their ability to live a life that we have reason to value, not their wealth of resources or subjective well-being. But to begin to assess how people perform in terms of capacity, we first need to determine which functions are important to the good life and how much, or at least we need to specify an assessment procedure to determine this.
  • The scope of this approach is quite vast; all factors that can potentially affect people’s capabilities are relevant for consideration. Included in the domain of capability theory are all possible factors – social and political processes, gender, inequality, discrimination of all types, social exclusion, disability, environmental conditions, personal and psychological factors – that can possibly influence human capabilities, which is the prime measure of human well-being. In this sense, it is a complete human development model.

Equality of Outcome

  • The idea of an equality of outcome is the most radical and controversial face of egalitarianism. Whereas equal opportunities require that significant steps are taken towards achieving greater social and economic equality, far more dramatic changes are necessary if ‘outcomes’ are to be equalised. It shifts attention away from the starting point of life to its end results, from chances to rewards. 
  • Defenders of equality of outcome believe that the guarantee of all other equalities would be inadequate so long as equality of outcome is not ensured. Marx, for instance, was of the opinion that any right to equality circumscribed by a bourgeois economy can only be partial. He, thus, argued for absolute social equality, possible only if private property was abolished 
  • Critics of equality of outcome point out that such a pursuit would only lead to stagnation, injustice and worse of all tyranny. Stagnation results from the fact that social ‘levelling’ serves to cap aspirations and remove the incentive for enterprise and hard work. Hayek, for instance, has argued people being very different have different aspirations and goals and any system that treats them equally actually results in inequality. The drive for equality, it is argued, is at the cost of individual liberty. The imposition of socialist egalitarian measures, it is argued, undermines the dignity and self-respect of the individual and the inherent paternalism accompanying such measures denies the ability of the individual to be a rational chooser. Policies that aim to promote equality by redistributing wealth do little more than rob the rich in order to pay the poor. 
  • Egalitarian principles
    • Every individual has a right to the satisfaction of his or her basic needs,
    • involve democratic control of the economy and the workplace,
    • Political equality, needless to add, is not just the right to vote or to stand for any public office, but a wide network of civil rights and a democratic participation in all aspects of life so that individuals are enabled to control and shape their lives in a more significant way,
    • Sexual, racial, ethnic and religious equality are some of the other components of the complex idea of equality


  • The existence of social inequalities is probably as old as human society and the debate about the nature and cause of inequalities is an ancient topic of political philosophy. 
  • Inequality becomes a ground of complaint and resentment only when it is thought to be unjust. In other words, inequality in society may be thought to be ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’, according to the prevalent idea of social justice. According to the prevalent view of ancient slave-owning society, medieval feudal society and early capitalist society, inequality between master and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and the worker was regarded as reasonable.
  • But with the development of the socialist view of justice, especially the Marxian view, this inequality was regarded unjust and unreasonable, and hence challenged. Marx and Engels have amply demonstrated that the division of society into classes of capitalists and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat, haves and have-nots involves ‘exploitation’ and that this is prejudicial to the development of conditions of human happiness. 
  • J.J. Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), drew an important distinction between the two types of inequalities found in social life: natural inequality and conventional inequality. Natural or physical inequality, as a statement of fact, consists in the differences of age, health, bodily strength and qualities of mind and soul.
  • Conventional inequality, on the other hand, consists in the different privileges that some men enjoy to the exclusion of others, such as inequalities of wealth, prestige and power. It follows that one form of inequality is not dependent upon human choice, being more or less ordained by nature. The other form of inequality is largely man-made; it emanates from the social order more or less deliberately designed by men themselves.
  • Liberals reject sex, race, or class as the relevant criteria for treating people differently, but they do believe that it is just and fair if inequalities are earned and deserved by virtue of their different desert or merit. 
  • Liberal theory holds that as long as inequality can be justified on the basis of merit, abilities or special contribution to society, it is acceptable. However, what is meritorious, special or a contribution to the society, are all circumscribed by the specificities of the society in question. Moreover, it is very difficult to isolate the worth of an individual’s contribution. 
  • In recent times, however, modern liberals such as Rawls and Dworkin have rejected merit and desert as criteria for justifying inequality. Instead, they advocate an equality of consideration based on the equal moral worth of all individuals, irrespective of their differing individual talents or skills. They base this equality on the idea that all human beings are equally endowed with the ability to make choices and formulate life plans. 
  • Rawls advocates the treatment of the natural abilities as a social asset so that the ‘basic structure of society can be arranged so that these contingencies work to the good of the least fortunate’. The so-called ‘Difference Principle’ that Rawls enunciates, is to his mind, the best principle for ensuring that natural assets do not lead to unfair advantages. This Principle requires that social and economic inequalities should be so arranged that Justice they are both 
    • To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and 
    • Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity 
  • Unequal rewards are justified not on the basis of differing abilities, but as incentives so that they benefit the least advantaged. 
  • Macpherson has criticised Rawlsian equality on the grounds that it assumes the inevitability of institutionalized inequalities between classes. In doing this, Rawls ignores the fact that class based inequalities create unequal power relationships among individuals of different classes and would, thus, impinge on other aspects of equality. 
  • Thus, equality ultimately demands a progressive reduction of inequalities where they are thought to be unreasonable; it does not imply literal equalization. 

Liberty or Freedom, Equality and Justice

  • Liberty and equality are considered as antithetical to each other, as attempts to establish equality imply coercion and loss of liberty. 
  • Early liberal thinkers like Locke, Adam Smith, Bentham, James Mill, and Tocqueville felt that there should be minimum restrictions on the liberty of the individual. Example, Locke did not include equality in the list of three natural rights. De Tocqueville considers equality as a danger for liberty. It is implied that since individuals are different in terms of their skills and abilities, differences in their lives are bound to exist, and any attempt to correct this will have to be accompanied by authoritarian suppression and hence, loss of liberty. 
  • However, the above conception of liberty is negative liberty i.e. absence of interference in the life of an individual. Liberalism, during this era was based upon the concept of free market and open competition among the egoistic rational individuals and it believed that the outcome of economic competition, though unequal, is benevolent and progressive. 
  • Early liberals believed that no individual will voluntarily give up wealth and privileges in an unequal society and as a result, programmes of social equalisation must interfere with the democratic rights of the individual. In the modern era this is supported by scholars like Bagehot, Hayek, Milton Friedman, Mosca, Pareto etc. 
  • The supporters of the elite theory of democracy believe that people are politically unequal and to save democracy and liberty from monocracy, it is essential that only elites should participate in the political process. Thus, early liberals considered Liberty and Equality as incompatible. 
  • The demand for economic and social equality rose in the 19th century by the socialists and positive liberals made equality the prime requirement of liberty. Positive liberty stated that equality enhances the freedom to make choices and helps in fulfilment of material and economic requirements of society. Positive liberals maintained that liberty and equality are complementary to each other and the state was assigned the task of correcting the social and economic imbalances through legislation and regulation. 
  • Inequality in the access to the resources and essential services such as education will have adverse effects on the liberty of individuals and can be a limitation on the individual’s ability to lead a meaningful life. The supporters of this viewpoint are Rousseau, Maitland, T.H. Green, Hobhouse, Lindsay, R.H. Tawney, Barker, Laski, Macpherson, etc. They supported the doctrine of equality of opportunity which would help one realise his real personality. 
  • Without the satisfaction of economic needs, liberty cannot be realised. Equality, which aims to put an end to gross inequalities of wealth and power, is the true basis of liberty. Whenever there is inequality, liberty is thwarted. 

As Laski wrote, an interest in liberty begins when men have ceased to be overwhelmed by the problem of sheer existence; 

  • Inequality of wealth results in the division of society between rich and poor where the rich use their wealth to capture power and use it for their selfish ends. Likewise, if there is a social inequality, people cannot enjoy liberty. For example, the untouchables, scheduled castes and tribes who are both socially and economically unequal cannot enjoy liberty. 
  • Positive liberals did not agree with the view that state regulations in the economic and social spheres will lead to authoritarianism. Both equality and liberty are complementary and one is not complete without the other. Both have a common end; the promotion of individual personality and the spontaneous development of his personality. In this context, both liberty and equality complement and supplement each other. 

Liberty a precondition for equality 

  • Liberty acts as a catalyst to actions generated or lay according to equality. Scholars are united in their advocacy of liberty because without liberty it will be impossible for an individual to achieve his or her position and overcome social impediments and achieve equality with fellow citizens in status and opportunity. 
  • If a person has no liberty, he would not be able to achieve his full personality and would not be in position to raise his/her voice for equality. JS Mill has argued that no state can become great by dwarfing its Citizens. 
  • Rawls arranges the principles of justice in ‘lexical priority’, prioritising in the order of the Liberty Principle, Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle. This order determines the priorities of the principles if they conflict in practice. Thus liberty comes before equality when there is conflict. 
  • Liberty is the availability and the ability to make choices that are meaningful and effective. This links to the issues of access to structures of social and institutional power, fulfilment of material and economic requirements, and of course, the possession of education and knowledge. Amartya Sen’s Capability approach of achieving equal human development to being a successful person should have liberty to acquire the skills and capability. 
  • Thus, Liberty and equality are the cardinal normative values in the discipline of political theory. 

Justice and Equality

  • Like liberty, the relation between equality and justice is also a controversial one. The issue of equality has provoked particularly intense debate when it has been applied to the distribution of wealth or income in society, what is commonly referred to as ‘social justice’. Whereas some insist that an equal, or at least more equal, distribution of rewards and benefits is desirable, others argue that justice demands that natural differences among humankind should be reflected in the way society treats them. 
  • As we have discussed earlier, our society consists of number of inequalities based upon age, sex, caste, ability, education, social status, wealth, opportunity etc. Historically, such inequalities have not only been justified but also perpetuated. Early liberalism, while championing the cause of legal and political equality, did not bother about the economic and social inequalities resulting from freedom of contract, open competition and private property. 
  • However, with the advent of socio-economic equality, the struggle against the prevailing inequalities became an important element of justice. Justice demands that politics should operate to produce equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, uniform distribution of goods and services, one-man one-vote etc. 
  • In the discussion of Equality and Justice, the contribution of John Rawls is most important. For Him a just society would involve the maximisation of equal basic liberties where the liberty of one person would not be in conflict with the liberty of others. To develop the sense of justice in case of social and economic inequalities, he wanted to arrange these inequalities in such a way that they contribute to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged in the society. Thus he preferred that all essential social goods should be distributed equally among all, unless an unequal distribution of these goods would be to the advantage of the least favoured members of the society. 
  • According to Kymlicka, the relationship between equality and justice is also found in the works of Karl Marx, Robert Nozick etc. While libertarianism believes that equality means equal rights over one’s labour and property, the Marxists take it as equality of income and wealth. Thus, it can be summed up with the thought of Dworkin that equality lies at the heart of all contemporary theories of justice. 

‘Every plausible political theory has the same ultimate value, which is equality and that ‘each person matters equally’ is at the heart of all contemporary theories of justice’. – Dworkin 

Dworkin View of Equality

  • Ronald Dworkin has given the theory of resource equality. Resources Equality means the possibility of having equitable resources so that everyone can carry out their conception of what is good or well being. For a variety of reasons, well-being is too subjective and we don’t know what that means. 
  • Imagine a situation where hundred shipwrecked people landed on a desert island, so they have to organize themselves as a society and they have to decide how to distribute the resources that are given by the island. 
  • The Dworkin’s idea is to organize an auction in which each person receives a hundred shells. The one hundred shipwrecked people will be auctioned off with their shells and there are a number of lots to be auctioned off. In front of each of the lots, each will put the number of shells he is willing to use to finance his desire. 
  • In Dworkin’s idea, there is no inequality because everyone will have the same resources so no one will be able to buy everything, there will be no monopoly story, and everyone will have to make calculations about what he is willing to put in his resources. From the moment he chooses, the person commits his special responsibility. The end of the auction will be considered fair as long as each person does not envy the other’s endowment. 
  • As an outcome we arrive hypothetically at a situation where there is no envy because everyone has been able to buy their own conception of the good, then, at that point, we will be in a hypothetical situation of non-injustice. 
  • What about those people who would have been injured, and what do we do for people who will inevitably get sick and who at some point, what about those who ended up wasting their resources in wrong choices? In other words, what do we do about things that are not choices, but are bad luck? This is explained through division of luck in two types: Optional luck and Brute luck. In optional luck, the risks are taken through rational choices and hence the disadvantages are a person’s own choice. But in Brute luck, a person has no choice such as being born in a lower caste in India. Here, we have to be conscious about brute luck and the state will have some kind of role. This whole concept is known as Luck Egalitarianism
  • Way forward for those would be the idea of insurance. People should buy insurance for any such bad luck or wrong choices. Thus the Strict Equality of resources holds that a distribution of property rights in resources is just if and only if it results in everyone having the same amount of resources while Dworkin’s equality of resources says that a distribution of rights and responsibilities is just if and only if it is a result of people’s free choices after an initial strictly equal resources distribution coupled with insurance against natural handicap. 

Complex Equality: MICHAEL WALZER

  • Complex equality is a theory of justice outlined by Michael Walzer in his 1983 work Spheres of Justice. It is considered innovative because of its emphasis on the broader conceptualization of distribution, which covers not only tangible goods but also abstract goods such as rights. The theory is distinguished from simple equality since it allows certain inequalities in social goods.
  • The theory posits that inequalities in several spheres of society should not invade one another. Walzer’s definition of complex equality is: “In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good.” In this state of affairs, there are a variety of goods and these are distributed according to the appropriate principles that are inherent in their social meanings. The idea is that the resulting multiple inequalities that consistently do not favour any group serve as the equalizer.
  • A reading of Walzer’s notion is that it is culturally relative. For instance, in the case of a caste society, complex equality is characterized by the integration of meanings attached to goods in all spheres, effectively subjecting prestige, wealth, office, occupation, clothing, food, and knowledge to the same hierarchy.

Marxist Concept of Equality

  • The central objective of Marx was ‘abolition of classes and equal social status for all’. It denotes identical conditions of people in a society 
  • While in liberal society, equality has been taken as equality before law, and economic and political inequality and rights of the working people in reality remains absent. Liberal theory proceeds from the right of every man to own property, but the main concern i.e. relation of the means of production is not taken into account. 
  • Marxism proceeds from the premise that whether it is economic equality, i.e. in the sphere of material wealth, or political equality or cultural equality – all of them are impossible without the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and liquidation of exploiting classes. 
  • As Marx wrote, ‘we want to abolish classes and in this sense we are for equality’. Similarly, Engels wrote that the demand for equality has either been the spontaneous reaction against the crying social inequalities among rich and poor, feudal lords and serfs, slaves and masters, surf – fitters and the starving; 
  • In the same vein, Lenin felt that only the abolition of classes will achieve social equality and help promote the all round development of human personality 
  • The question of establishing equality in socialist/communist societies came to the forefront after the Russian Revolution. However, during the phase of the Dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin declared that the socialist system retains some elements of social inequalities owing to the inadequate development of material production, the survival of substantial distribution between mental and physical labour, between town and country. Political inequality must also operate to the detriment of the former class of exploiters for whom there would neither be democracy nor rights. 
  • Later Stalin declared that all the citizens had the same political rights; all enjoyed electoral franchise and eligibility for getting elected to the soviets. On the other hand, on the political leadership front there would be no equality for the nonconformists or equal opportunities for the potential opposition – an aspect which was criticised by Rosa Luxemburg after the revolution. 
  • The Constitution of the (erstwhile) USSR established equality of rights of Soviet citizens in all spheres of economic, cultural, social and political life. During the early years after the revolution, the policies of the state were tilted towards equality. However, subsequently, when industrialisation was launched, the demands of technology necessitated the training and employment of skilled labour and specialisation. This in course of time led to the emergence of a new class of intelligentsia with the result that several scientists, artists, leading party functionaries, senior government officials etc which were paid much more than the working class. 
  • Thus, Marxism attempted to achieve equality in theory, but in practice the Soviet system of socialism or Chinese system of communism couldn’t achieve the desired equality. 

Affirmative action 

  • Affirmative action is the strategy to errand members of a disadvantaged group who currently suffer or historically have suffered from discrimination within a culture. Often, these people are deprived for historical reasons, such as oppression or bondage. The notion of “affirmative action” was first used in the United States in “Executive Order No.10925”, signed by President John F. Kennedy on 6 March 1961, which included a provision that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, colour, or national origin.” In 1967, gender was added to the anti-discrimination list. In 1989, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulated (in Article 2.2) that affirmative action programs may be required of countries that ratified the convention, in order to rectify systematic discrimination. It also states that such programs “shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”
  • In simple term, Affirmative action is anticipated to promote the opportunities of defined minority groups within a society to give them equal access to that of the majority population. In India, Reservation in India is a form of affirmative action designed to improve the well-being of backward and under-represented communities defined primarily by their caste.
  • Affirmative action denotes to the policies and laws that attempt to redress a situation of discrimination and promote equal opportunity. Affirmative action is also related to positive discrimination, which entails means to compensate or counter the effects of prejudices in terms of race, gender and / or disabilities. The nature of policy and terminology used vary from country to country.
  • The norm of affirmative action is to encourage societal equality through the preferential treatment of socioeconomically deprived people. Often, these people are disadvantaged for historical reasons, such as oppression or slavery (Christophe Jaffrelot, 2003). Historically and internationally, support for affirmative action has sought to accomplish several goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay; increasing access to education; enriching state, institutional, and professional leadership with the full spectrum of society; redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances, in particular addressing the apparent social imbalance left in the wake of slavery and slave laws.
  • There are different kinds of affirmative action. Some are direct e.g. provisions demanding that certain quantitative or qualitative targets be reached through admission to schools, employment and political appointments. Quantitative targets are also known as quotas and they could be designed to have immediate or medium/ long term effect (Tinker, 2004).
  • Affirmative Action could also be indirect, consisting of programmes which support certain categories to support their performance or improve their access. While many researchers argue that affirmative action measures have, or should have a short life span, in practice, some affirmative action programmes have been of long duration, going through expansions and modifications over time. Indeed, proponents argue that Affirmative Action measures should continue until they reach their goals or until it is proven that they have negative outcomes for other groups.
  • In United States, Affirmative action is an active effort to increase employment or educational opportunities for members of minority groups and for women. Affirmative action began as a government remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination against such groups and has consisted of policies, programs, and procedures that give preferences to minorities and women in job hiring, admission to institutions of higher education, the awarding of government contracts, and other social benefits. The typical standards for affirmative action are race, disability, gender, ethnic origin, and age. The United Nations Human Rights committee in its statement on Affirmative Action has asserted that, “the principle of equality sometimes requires States parties to take affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the Covenant”
  • Survey reports of USA Today in 2005 revealed that majority of Americans support affirmative action for women, while views on minority groups were more split (Usatoday.Com, 2014). Men are only slightly more likely to support affirmative action for women; though a majority of both do.

Affirmative action in Indian scenario

  • The notion of Affirmative action which was founded to check cultural discrimination of disadvantaged classes especially during job applications so that the employees are not discriminated against due to their race, colour or nationality.
  • In Indian context, affirmative action concept is a debatable issue. Its initial goals can be recognized as:
    • To allow equal opportunities for the classes who have been excluded and underplayed in academics – school admission, scholarships; and careers – promotions salary hikes, etc.
    • Originally against racial discrimination, it was extended to include discrimination based on sex, disability etc.
    • It was to be enforced for a fixed period of time till the marginalized are able to regain their rights in the society.
  • It is demonstrated in studies that India has had the longest history of affirmative action to counter caste and ethnic discrimination (Revankar 1971). Article 46 of the 1950 Constitution enunciates “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”
  • Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution included a list of castes and tribes entitled to such provision, and the castes and the tribes included in these two lists were known as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) respectively. As a consequence of this provision, a policy of compensatory discrimination via reserved positions was implemented both at the national and subnational levels in the allocation of university places and public service appointments (Galanter, 1984).
Consequences of affirmative action in India:
  • Reverse Discrimination: In the system of Affirmative action, the Majority of populace feel omitted and discriminated against as the allocation of jobs and positions in various fields is based on a quota system or reservations. In India, the government continues to reinforce reservations, and increases the quotas to gain vote bank, and the majority feel acutely side-lined. The system of reservation was meant to last for a decade or so, but it has become so established in the contemporary times, that the majority are naturally in disdain of it. The heated issue of Patidar Reservation Agitation in India is best example of reverse discrimination in India. Patels, as a prosperous caste in India are also highlighting themselves as ‘backward classes’. In doing so, they demand reservations in jobs and educational institutions the same way the disadvantaged OBCs are entitled to. With considerable quotas put aside for the marginalised, the majority has to bear the brunt of tightened and hence highly competitive vacancies and posts resulting in many meritorious candidates losing at academic and career opportunities. If Patels who belong to a commercial community fear the loss of their jobs or unavailability of jobs altogether, it speaks volumes on Reverse discrimination in India.
  • Brain Drain: It is major outcome of identity-based politics in India. Due to reservations, and quota based systems, the public feels challenged, destabilised and even rejected as selections in jobs and education are made on the criterion of Caste than Merit. Hence, the intellectuals are forced to work abroad and the phenomenon of Brain Drain keeps draining India of its think tanks, learned scholars and intellectuals.
  • Against Constitution: If the constitution struggles for an democratic society with equal rights for everyone irrespective of caste, colour and creed, then the case of preferential treatment as evidenced in the policies of Affirmative Action may/will attack as a double standard. Because of this fact, in many countries Affirmative Action on the basis of race is deemed prohibited but in India such is not the case.
  • Creamy layer: It has been observed that there are economic divisions even in the impoverished classes such as OBCs. Mostly the well-off sections of the same community tend to seize the reservations while the poor remain poor and incapable to access the welfare schemes meant to rehabilitate them. In order to arrest such a practice, the concept of creamy layer was introduced in India according to which the upper and middle sections of OBCs are not eligible for reservations allowing the poor OBCs access to government’s welfare programs. In this system, the sections belonging to low castes that have progressed in educational and job circles will not be entertained as marginalised and can compete with the majority without the helping hand of the reservations. Simultaneously, the poor castes can benefit from the quota system, and advance themselves to the level of not needing reservations in the long run.

Merits and demerits of affirmative action:

  • Affirmative action policies have been proved as effectual way to balance structuctural disparities in many societies.
  • There are many advantages of affirmative actions:
    • Affirmative action guarantees representation of minorities and disadvantaged groups in positions of authority. These representatives can function as inspiring role models, which in the long term can help fight prejudices and stereotypes.
    • Affirmative action contributes to diversity in schools, universities, companies and public administrations.
    • These policies are a fair compensation for centuries of racial or gender discrimination.
    • Affirmative action policies help disabled people enter the labour market and thus contribute to the economy of their countries. They also allow them earn a living and relieve the government from having to sustain them.
    • People who start from a disadvantaged position deserve extra support to develop their full potential. Without affirmative action many would not even consider some jobs or areas of study.
  • Nonetheless, affirmative action policies have also many critics. In the US, by the late 1970s, reverse discrimination was an issue of heated debate. Critics opined that affirmative action is reverse discrimination and further claim that affirmative action has disagreeable side-effects in addition to failing to achieve its goals. They contend that it hinders reconciliation, replaces old wrongs with new wrongs, weakens the achievements of minorities, and encourages individuals to identify themselves as underprivileged, even if they are not. It may increase racial tension and benefit the more privileged people within minority groups at the expense of the least fortunate within majority groups (such as lower-class white people).
  • The famous Bakke case in 1978 exhibited the limitations of this approach to fighting inequality. Allan Bakke, a white male, was rejected two years in a row by a medical school that had accepted less qualified minority applicants. The Supreme Court outlawed the inflexible quota system which had unfairly discriminated against him.
  • Major disadvantages of affirmative action:
    • Affirmative action can be biased against those who are not part of the minorities or groups protected. Sometimes people that fulfil the basic criteria for a job or a vacancy in a university may not be accepted.
    • These policies may upsurge racial or ethnic tensions. The members of a group may develop a negative attitude towards a minority if they perceive that due to positive discrimination they are being excluded or see their chances of getting some jobs or positions limited.
    • Positive discrimination can be very difficult to apply in societies where ethnic divides are not very clear and people often have mixed backgrounds.
    • It is argued that these policies or laws serve to reinforce the separation and division among different groups. In some countries it is even illegal to classify people according to their race or ethnic background for this same reason.
    • The basic principles to define the groups reached by these policies and the quotas allocated or type of preferential treatment are often doubtful.
  • There are other critics who stated that affirmative actions are not good practices. Challengers of affirmative action such as George Sher consider that affirmative action diminishes the accomplishments of people who are chosen based on the social group to which they belong rather than their qualifications, thus rendering affirmative action counterproductive . According to Bacchi, affirmative action violates the principle of equality stems from the fact that affirmative action viewed from wrong perspective, namely that serves to the advantage to less qualified people.
  • But affirmative action is intended to enhance the life of deprived people. Affirmative action is a set of measures approved by governments and public and private institutions such as political parties, educational establishments, corporations and companies to address a history of systemic discrimination and exclusion of particular social groups or to encourage the efforts of particular social groups in the interests of certain development goals. Affirmative action is expected to improve development indicators by reducing inequalities and facilitating the contribution of particular social groups to development.


  • To summarise, equality is an important notion of Political Science. It is demonstrated in Chinese Dictionary that equality refer to the process in which people are entitled to the same treatment in terms of society, economy, laws and the same status. That is to say, people possess the same social status and enjoy the same treatment. In the political thought, equality is described that all human beings are equal, and equality in distribution, namely equal distribution of wealth, social opportunities and political power.
  • There are different types of equality such as political, social, legal, natural, and economic equality. There is a strong link between freedom and equality. Regarding affirmative actions, it can be appraised that Affirmative action is considered to be an effective way of eliminating or reducing the impact of discrimination . News reports signified that affirmative action calls for women to be given special consideration in employment, education and contracting decisions.

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