• Larry S. Temkin

The Many Faces of Equality

Larry S. Temkin*


We live in an amazing age. Many are living longer, healthier, better lives than the kings and queens of yore. Indeed, thanks to cell phones, computers, televisions, airplanes, heart transplants, etc., extraordinary experiences are now available to even ordinary citizens—experiences unimaginable just a century ago. Yet, millions have been left behind.


In 2018, ~17,000 children died each day, most from preventable causes. In 2020, the world’s 500 billionaires possessed more than twice the world’s Gross Domestic Product as the 2.4 billion members of the world’s low-income countries, and the seven richest people possessed more than all 567 million people of the world’s 41 poorest countries. In 2021, ~690 million people lived in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day.


Such facts have made equality one of the most potent of human ideals. Yet, equality defies easy characterization, and few ideals have been more widely discussed, yet less well understood.


Equality of what?

Much debate concerns what kind of equality is desirable: income, resources, power, welfare, opportunity, needs satisfaction, capabilities, rights, or what? Similarly, should we care about equality before the law, treating people equally, democratic equality, or equality of outcomes? These questions are extremely important, as equality of one kind often requires inequality of another. Many believe we should be concerned with one kind of equality. However, different kinds of equality matter in different contexts. Where egalitarian considerations conflict we must weigh their competing strengths, just as when competing ideals conflict.


Different kinds of egalitarian positions.

We might distinguish between equality as universality, as impartiality, or as comparative fairness.

Equality as universality reflects the basic principle of rationality, that all reasons must be universal in their application.

Equality as impartiality reflects the view that all people must be treated impartially.

While all plausible moral theories are committed to equality as universality and impartiality (in some sense), equality as comparative fairness is a distinct view that reflects a deeper commitment to equality. Egalitarians of this kind are fundamentally concerned with how people fare relative to others. Roughly, they believe that it is bad—unfair or unjust—for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own.

Many who favor redistribution from the better- to worse-off are only instrumental egalitarians. For them, equality is valuable only insofar as it promotes some other desirable goal, like reducing suffering, fostering solidarity, or strengthening democratic institutions. Such reasons are morally significant, and compatible with equality as universality and impartiality. However, some people are non-instrumental egalitarians. They believe that equality is sometimes valuable itself, beyond the extent to which it promotes other ends.

Understanding equality.

The notion of equality is widely assumed to be:

holistic—concerned about equality between groups such as blacks and whites, or women and men;

simple—equality is where everybody has the same amount of some desirable factor; and

essentially distributive—desirable factors should be equally distributed. The conventional assumptions are questionable. I believe the notion of equality is:

individualistic—groups aren’t the proper objects of moral concern, individuals in groups are. For example, if inequality of wealth matters, then it matters between any individuals who are rich and poor, including rich blacks and poor whites, rich women and poor men, rich Mexicans and poor Canadians, etc.;

complex— on reflection, there are many distinct "aspects" of equality that underlie and influence egalitarian judgments. Some track how much deviation there is from a state of "pure" equality. Others track how "gratuitous" the inequality is. Still others track different combinations of plausible answers to the questions of: who has an egalitarian complaint; how should you measure the size of egalitarian complaints; and how should egalitarian complaints be aggregated to determine the overall badness of an outcome’s inequality; and

essentially comparative—the concern is that how individual's fare relative to each other should not be unfair.

Ultimately, assessing an outcome’s inequality requires first identifying equality's many aspects, and then developing a measure that accurately gives each aspect its due weight.


Arguments against equality and responses.

Opponents of equality have argued that egalitarianism should be rejected because it implies that everyone be or be treated exactly the same. Or because it conflicts with freedom. Or because it may require that we “level down” the better off if we cannot benefit the worse off (for example, blind the sighted, or handicap the beautiful or talented).

However, egalitarians soundly reject the first two views. There is no egalitarian objection to Maria being a tall dark-skinned catholic Mexican, and Anders being a short light-skinned protestant Lithuanian, if neither is worse off than the other. Likewise, there is no egalitarian objection to giving Maria a football, and Anders a truck, if that would leave each equally well-off. Regarding freedom, the value of freedom lies in each person being able to effectively pursue their own life plan and, for many, that is incompatible with the world’s inequality. Moreover, freedom and equality both matter, so some trade-offs may be necessary when they conflict.


As for "levelling down,” equality isn’t the only ideal that would have terrible implications if exclusively pursued. The same is true of justice, utility, freedom, and perfection. Thus, the main lesson of the levelling down objection is that we must be pluralists. But egalitarians readily grant that.


Much work remains.

Equality remains a powerful ideal, but one shrouded in confusion.Much work remains on this enormously complex topic.





*Actualmente es Profesor Distinguido y Mesa de Filosofía en la Universidad de Rutgers.Ha impartido clases a nivel mundial, incluyendo para la OMS, el Banco Mundial, y el Instituto de Métricas de Salud y Evaluación. Su

acercamiento individualista a la desigualdad ha sido adoptado por la OMS al igual que por la Fundación Gates en la medición del “Global Burden of Disease”. Ademas, ha recibido ocho importantes premios de enseñanza.