EQUALITY is the great political issue of our time. Liberty is forgotten: Fraternity never did engage our passions: the maintenance of Law and Order is at a discount: Natural Rights and Natural justice are outmoded shibboleths. But Equality---there men have something to die for, kill for, agitate about, be miserable about. The demand for Equality obsesses all our political thought. We are not sure what it is---indeed, as I shall show later, we are necessarily not sure what it is---but we are sure that whatever it is, we want it: and while we are prepared to look on frustration, injustice or violence with tolerance, as part of the natural order of things, we will work ourselves up into paroxysm§ of righteous indignation at the bare mention of inequality. For my own part, I think the current obsession with equality deplorable. There are problems enough in all conscience, to occupy our minds for the rest of this century, without inculcating in each man's breast a feeling of resentment because in some respect or other he compares unfavourably with somebody else. But it is not enough to deplore; and my attack will take the more insidious form of understanding Equality. I shall show why it is that we are tempted to demand Equality, and in what sense the demand is rational; and how we have been confused into thinking that our demand is for something else; and how this demand is incoherent, because what is demanded is both internally inconsistent and incompatible with other more precious ideals.
We are tempted to demand Equality when we set out to give a moral or rational critique of society. Not that it is wrong to try to give a rational account of one's society, although one should not be too doctrinaire about it; the crude realist, who is concerned only with what he can get away with, is not an estimable creature. And although the historical approach is estimable, and adequate for explaining why things are as they are, yet since the future can never be exactly like the past, it gives us only inadequate guidance on how political choices are to be made. To this extent at least, we ought to attempt a moral and rational critique of our society. Of those who have done so most have laid it down either that men are all equal really, or that they ought to be. This Equality, which is a by- product of rationality, is nothing other than the principle of universalisability. I shall call it the principle of Formal Equality. It requires that if two people are being treated, or are to be treated, differently, there should be some relevant difference between them. Otherwise, in the absence of some differentiating feature, what is sauce for the  goose is sauce for the gander, and it would be wrong to treat the two unequally, that is, not the same.
It is clear that formal Equality by itself establishes very little. Indeed, if we accept the infinite variety of human personality, that no two people, not even identical twins, are qualitatively identical, then there will always be differences between any two people, which might be held to justify a difference of treatment. Many of these differences we may wish to rule out as not being relevant, but since the principle of Formal Equality does not provide, of itself, any criteria of relevance, it does not, by itself, establish much. It gives a line of argument, but not any definite conclusion.
Egalitarians, however, profess to be less concerned with differences than with samenesses. The ways in which men resemble one another are much more important, they hold, than the ways in which they differ, and a corresponding similarity of treatment is the only one that can be justified. It seems at first sight to be a natural corollary---a contraposition almost---of the principle of Formal Equality. The latter states that people may properly be treated differently only if they are different: the former that since people are, in fact, similar, their treatment should be similar too. A moment's reflection, however, will show that the equivalence is spurious. It is spurious because the respects in which people are, in the one case the same, in the other different, are not themselves the same. Human beings are the same in respect of being featherless bipeds, of being sentient agents, perhaps rational ones, perhaps children of God. They are not the same in respect of height, age, sex, intellectual ability, strength of character. These latter differences may be irrelevant, as the egalitarians assert: but they are not proved not to be differences by the fact that in other respects men are similar.
The argument from sameness is thus seen to be independent of the principle of Formal Equality. It is often expressed by the words `After all, all men are men' or `A man is a man for a' that'. It would be difficult to deny what is stated in these words, but difficult also to derive very convincingly from it any principle of Equality. The argument, inasmuch as there is one, seems to run thus:
It is not, on the face of it, a cogent form of argument. That it is in fact fallacious is shown by the parody which can be obtained by replacing the word `men' by the word `numbers'.
An implicit and illegitimate extension is being made of the respects in virtue of which the men (or numbers) are being said to be equal; it has been assumed that because they are equal in some respects---in possessing those characteristics in virtue of which they are said to be men-- -therefore they are equal in all. And this does not follow.
Nevertheless, we do think that something follows from the fact that men are men, and that all men share a common humanity. We do think that men, because they are men, ought not to be killed, tortured, imprisoned, exploited, frustrated, humiliated; that they should never be treated merely as means but always also as ends in themselves. Exactly what is meant is unclear, but at least two things are clear: that all men are entitled to such treatment; and that their entitlement derives from their possession of certain features, such as sentience and rationality, which are characteristic of the human species. And therefore it is proper to view the argument as one which starts from the universal common humanity of men---that all men are men--- and ends with an injunction about how men are to be treated- --that all men are to be treated alike, in certain respects. Although thus set out, the argument would not find favour with tough-minded philosophers, it is a sound argument so far as it goes. Only, it has little to do with equality. It is, rather, an argument of Universal Humanity, that we should treat human beings, because they are human beings, humanely. To say that all men, because they are men, are equally men, or that to treat any two persons as ends in themselves is to treat them as equally ends in themselves is to import a spurious note of egalitarianism into a perfectly sound and serious argument. We may call it, if we like, the argument from Equality of Respect, but in this phrase it is the word `Respect'---respect for each man's humanity, respect for him as a human being---which is doing the logical work, while the word `Equality' adds nothing to the argument and is altogether otiose.
The principle of Formal Equality or Universalisability, and the principle of Equality of Respect, or Universal Humanity, are two extremes, bounding the range in which seriously egalitarian principles of Equality operate. We have two universes of discourse to correlate: one consists of human beings, the other of possible treatments of human beings. Each human being is characterized by an infinite (or at least indefinitely large) number of characteristics, and we correlate (or `map') the universe of possible treatments with the universe of human beings thus characterized. One principle, the principle of Universalisability, expresses for one type of correlation the fact that it is one-valued; that is, that every distinction which can be drawn between treatments corresponds to some distinction which can be drawn between human beings; but this is always possible since no  two people are qualitatively identical: the other principle, that of Universal Humanity, expresses for another type of correlation the fact that it correlates characteristics common to all human beings with characteristics common to all humane treatments. The principle of Universalisability specifies the treatment as fully as any one, egalitarian or non-egalitarian, could want, but in doing this for the treatments, is committed to drawing too many distinctions among the human beings for the egalitarian to stomach. The principle of Universal Humanity manages not to distinguish between men, so as to gladden the heart of the egalitarian: but in saying so little about men as not to differentiate between them, it says too little about treatments to characterize them in more than a very minimal way too little to ensure that they all will be equal in the way that the egalitarian wants. The egalitarian wants a map of the logical possibilities which is very detailed---in order to have everybody treated alike in all respects---and at the same time a crude outline sketch---in order to include all men together in only one constituency: but the logical manoeuvres which will give him the one will preclude him from having the other, and vice versa. More than logical considerations will be required to lead us from the minimal specification of human beings, which is the only one in respect of which we are all alike, to the maximal specification of the treatments we are to receive, which is necessary if they are all to be thought to be the same.
The central argument for Equality is a muddle. There are two sound principles of political reasoning, the principle of Universalisability and the principle of Universal Humanity, and each has been described as a sort of Equality, Formal Equality in the one case and Equality of Respect in the other. But they are not the same Equality, nor are they compatible, and they cannot be run in harness to lead to a full-blooded egalitarianism. Each, however, by itself can lead to some conclusions which an egalitarian would endorse. Though these conclusions are less, and necessarily less, than all that an egalitarian would wish, they represent the only Equalities that are obtainable and are reasonable to seek.
The principle of Universalisability is not vacuous in political reasoning because a polity is governed by laws, and laws involve universal terms. Laws are couched in universal terms partly for practical reasons, though not for them alone. There is not time to take into account all the characteristics of each person or all the features of each case: we cannot give separate orders to 50 million people individually, but have to make relatively few and blunt discriminations, lumping people together in categories and applying general rules to them, laying down what motorists are required to do,  what householders are entitled to do, what customers' rights are. Exceptions1 must be rare: for the most part laws must be no respecters of persons.
Practical considerations apart, there are two other reasons for laws being couched in universal terms.2 The first is that laws ought to be just: not absolutely just---we realise that absolute justice, like any other absolute ideal, is unattainable in this imperfect world---but guided by a certain aspiration towards justice. It is-----and here I part company with many modern writers on jurisprudence----- essential to our notion of law and our being willing to obey it, that it should be administered by courts which are courts of justice, and determined by judges having as their ideal the blind goddess who holds the scales and is no respecter of persons but gives her decision in accordance with the merits of the case. But if the decisions of the court are to have ally semblance of justice, they must be based on certain general features of the case, held to be relevant; and therefore laws themselves ought to be couched in universal terms, so that the justice dispensed in accordance with them shall conform at least to this necessary condition of being just.
The second reason for couching laws in general terms is to protect the subject from the government, and to enable him to know what the law requires of him so that he may be free to plan his life accordingly. It is an argument from imperfection: imperfection of the governors, imperfection of the governed. We want to make sure that our governors, our rulers, our judges cannot abuse their authority, or subject any one man to covert pressure to conform to their wishes: and we know that many men are not motivated altogether by ideals of absolute morality, and may want to do things which another man might regard as wrong, and that therefore they need to know in advance where they stand, and what things they may, and what things they may not, do. And so we require that laws shall be published beforehand, and apply to people generally, and not pick out any one person rather than another except in so far as he falls under some universal description.
Formal Equality thus becomes, in political reasoning, something much more substantial, namely Equality before the Law; but the Equality it establishes is still not an egalitarian Equality. justice has her eyes blindfolded: only those considerations which go into the scales are weighed. That is to say, not every factor is relevant. Thus  Equality before the Law will secure men equal treatment in some respects at the cost of necessarily not securing men equal treatment in all respects: the guilty are not treated the same as the innocent; the rich are often, and rightly, not fined the same as the poor; the mere fact of conviction may ruin a schoolmaster or a civil servant while constituting only a small penalty to a man of independent means. Equality before the Law is nonetheless valuable for that. It secures to all the protection of the law-----no man is to be outside the law, and everyone shall have access to the courts to vindicate his rights against every other man. It secures the uniform administration of the law without fear or favour. It gives the subject protection against arbitrary decisions by those in authority, and it gives him freedom to make rational plans. These are reasons enough to value Equality before the Law and on occasion to enact further measures---the provision of Legal Aid, for example---the better to secure it. But the Equality vouchsafed us by Equality before the Law, although valuable and not vacuous, is still much less than the Equality the egalitarian seeks.
Equality before the Law does not of itself secure that the laws themselves are equal. In one sense, they cannot be. Laws must pick out particular classes of people, actions, situations. The Traffic Acts apply, for instance, primarily to motorists, not to motorists and nonmotorists alike. Nevertheless, we can criticize certain laws, not for discriminating, but for discriminating irrelevantly. It is irrelevant to a man's right to own property or to travel in buses that his skin is of a certain colour, though not, presumably, to his being employed as an actor in the part of lago. It is irrelevant to whether a man should be allowed to exceed the speed limit that he is rich or that he is not rich, though not that he is a policeman in pursuit of a criminal, and arguably not that he is a doctor going to the scene of an accident. Many of the discriminations the egalitarian objects to, we can object to too, but because they offend against the canons of rationality and justice. Laws ought to be, so far as possible, rational and just, and therefore the distinctions drawn by each law should be relevant ones with regard to the general purpose of the law. But---and here is the rub---there is no sharp criterion of relevance, and sometimes, indeed, the mere fact that some people think something is relevant is enough to make it so. Many of the most serious disputes of our age are really disputes about relevance. The superficial slogans of the egalitarian are no help. If we want to have fruitful discussions about political matters, we must replace controversies about Equality by detailed arguments about criteria of relevance.3 Being arguments, they  are naturally two-sided, and one side may be right without the other being unreasonable, and an opponent may be wrong without being necessarily wrong-headed. In the detailed assessment of argument we shall see the important truth which the idiom of egalitarianism conceals, that on most political questions we are presented with a balance of argument rather than a simple black-and-white issue. Our arguments, therefore, will yield conclusions that are more solidly based, yet more tolerant in tone. Some, but not all, the conclusions the egalitarian yearns for can be maintained on nonegalitarian grounds, better established, but less censoriously affirmed.
In a similar vein the argument from Equality of Respect, Universal Humanity, will produce some of the conclusions the egalitarian looks for, but not the essentially egalitarian ones. Whenever inequality results in some people having too little, the humanitarian will protest as well as the egalitarian. Human life cannot be properly lived in very straitened circumstances, and we do not show respect for human beings as such if we do not try to alleviate those conditions. Moreover, wealth and poverty are, in part, relative terms: it is not just that there is a certain minimum requirement of food and fuel---true though this is: there is also a varying, and in our age rising, level of normality in each particular community, and to be too far below this will preclude a man from participation in the normal life of that community. The pre-war poor scholars in Oxford did not usually suffer from under-nourishment: but their poverty did prevent them living the normal life of an undergraduate, and could be objected to on those grounds alone. Not only bread, but Nescaf‚ and books are necessaries of university life---of social existence rather than bare physical subsistence.
This argument, the argument of the rising minimum as I shall call it, is by far the most pervasive argument in political thought today. It is a telling argument, but it is open to abuse. It may be a good thing that nobody should be without a television set: but it is only one desideratum among many; it does not have, though sometimes pretends to have, the compelling force of the claim that nobody should be without food.
The argument of the rising minimum ought not only to be tenta--tive in its forcefulness, but moderate in its claims, and ought not to set its sights too high. We may say that people ought not to fall too far below the average: we must be careful not to be led into saying that people must not fall at all below the average. The latter would entail a strict Equality: but it cannot be justified on any argument from humanity, however much extended. For there are differences too small to make any substantial difference---e.g., if I can afford to invite only thirty- nine people to a party, whereas the average is forty. If negligible differences are to matter, it must be because comparisons are being made, not because their consequences are important. People are feeling put upon not because they cannot join in normal activities, but because they mind that they have got less than other people. But then the argument has ceased to be an argument from humanity plus, and has become an argument from envy, an argument strong no doubt in many breasts, but a different one, nonetheless, and of a different degree of cogency.
The argument from extended humanity cannot set the minimum acceptable level too close to the average. It therefore cannot require that there should not be any people getting more than the average, and in particular, that there should not be some people getting much more than the average. This is the acid test for distinguishing the true egalitarian from the humanitarian. The true egalitarian will object on principle to any one man having much more than any others, even if, by reducing the one man's possessions, the others would attain only a negligible benefit, or none at all. The humanitarian has no such objection in principle. He may on occasion play Robin Hood, but only if he is convinced that the beneficiaries are in real need and will be substantially benefited by redistribution and that the arguments against intervening are less weighty than the arguments for. Equality of Respect will produce some but not all the conclusions the egalitarian desires, not the peculiarly egalitarian ones.
Having gone thus far in pursuit of Equality, we have gone as far as we can reasonably go. Legality, justice, Fairness, Equity, Humanity, all will on occasion produce a measure of Equality, but the measure is never exact, and they are none of them essentially egalitarian. The Equality that goes further than this, the Equality that the egalitarian yearns for, is unattainable and, to my mind, undesirable. It may be partly a matter of taste; I like variety more than I like uniformity: but it is also an inescapable conclusion from the nature of society and a consideration of the desiderata we have for a society's being a good one.4 If men, as we now know them, are  to co-exist in civil society there must be sanctions: this follows from the fact that some people are bloody-minded, and will do violence to others unless restrained by force or the threat of force. Civil society is, therefore, dependent on there being a system of coercion, and hence on there being certain people in a position to coerce others, people, that is, with power. Power cannot be equally divided and distributed over the whole population. It is necessarily concentrated in few hands. Egalitarians may take steps to make the possession of power in some sense more equal, but even in so doing they admit its natural inequality. Power is concentrated in some hands rather than others, and since power is one of the goods that men desire, it follows that in any society in which there are, or may be, bloody-minded men, there must be some people who possess more of the good that is constituted by power than do others.
Besides an inequality of power, there is an inequality of prestige, which will arise in any society which is in Durkheim's phrase `a moral community'---whose members, that is, share values and have some ideals in common. It will stem from men's natural inequality of ability resulting in their being able, some to a greater, others to a lesser, extent to be successful in achieving their ideals. There will thus be an inequality of success, and therefore also of prestige, which has nothing to do with power or sanctions. There are many sanctionless sub-societies which form moral communities and are correspondingly stratified. Undergraduates provide one example. There are no sanctions, no undergraduates 'in power', but some undergraduates do succeed more than others in realising some undergraduate ideal of excellence. The President of the Union, of O.U.D.S., of the J.C.R., are each top of his own particular tree and have more prestige than the rest of us. Again, in the world of science or in the republic of letters, there is no parity of esteem between all members. In these societies the members are not even located in one place, so there is no possibility of force being used or coercion required. Nevertheless there is a loosely established hierarchy, with all its inevitable inequalities. Shared ideals and inequality of ability is thus enough to bring about this sort of inequality, inequality of prestige. Whereas even if all men were of equal ability, or had no community of ideals, we should still, provided only that they lived in the same place and some of them might be tempted to use force, have an inequality of power.
It follows, then, that we shall never be able to avoid some inequalities; we can never avoid some inequality of power and we cannot avoid an inequality of prestige, unless we are prepared to have our society not be a moral community, but only a minimal civil society---and one of the lessons we can draw from political  history since the time of John Lock, is that most people will not be content with so bare a form of coexistence. They look to society not merely for security but for the opportunity of realising themselves in social existence, and are always creating the conditions for inequality of prestige.
Since men value power and prestige as much as the possession of wealth---indeed, these three `goods' cannot be completely separated---it is foolish to seek to establish an equality of wealth on egalitarian grounds. It is foolish first because it will not result in what egalitarians really want. It is foolish also because if we do not let men compete for money, they will compete all the more for power; and whereas the possession of wealth by another man does not hurt me, unless I am made vulnerable by envy, the possession of power by another is Inherently dangerous; and furthermore if we are to maintain a strict equality of wealth we need a much greater apparatus of state to secure it and therefore a much greater inequality of power. Better have bloated plutocrats than omnipotent bureaucrats.
It might be tempting to deal with power the way the Athenians did---accept that it must be of its nature unequal, but distribute it by lot. If we cannot all have an equal share of power, at least we can all have an equal chance of it. It is noteworthy that this is the method adopted by our egalitarian age of distributing another essentially unequal good in an egalitarian fashion. Great wealth is obviously inegalitarian; but nonetheless coveted for that. The pools create fortunes at negligible cost to their `investors', and distribute them at random. The unintelligent and unindustrious have just as much a chance as the energetic and the thrifty. This is their attraction---there is no damned merit about them. And so we do not tax winnings in the way we tax earnings. Our objection to non-random assignments of wealth is the same as the Athenians' objection to elective office: some people are more likely to get rich or get elected than others, and the others know it, and do not like it. justice is not blind enough: only Ernie is truly no respecter of persons.
But there is a snag. just as we pay a heavy price for preferring Equality to efficiency, and assigning economic rewards on the impartial basis of chance rather than any criteria of effort or enterprise, so the Athenians found the lot producing ineffectual rulers. And power must follow ability. So the strategoi, who were elected and could be chosen for their merits, came to exercise power, not the Archons, selected as they were by lot from a large field. The lesson holds good for us. We demand too much of government, we depend too much on its being tolerably competent, for us to be able to sacrifice all considerations of efficiency upon the altar of Equality. We can, and should, take special measures to prevent the abuse of  power; but we cannot confine that essentially unequal concept in an egalitarian mould, and if we attempt to do so, we shall find that power has fled from our equalled hands, and has taken on some new, and much less controllable, form.
Even where we can secure Equality, it is often not desirable. The administration of justice is better served by selecting good judges and putting them in a highly unequal position vis-à-vis the litigants, than by having a large number of equally eligible dikastai, who have no powers to secure the fair conduct of the case. Better laws are likely to be enacted if legislators are unequally privileged in the matter of free speech, and can say in Parliament all sorts of things which would be actionable elsewhere. The choice between economic efficiency and economic Equality is one we are all familiar with, and one that is likely to become more and more pressing in the next decade. If we are to attach any weight to merit-and it is difficult to claim that fairness is preserved where merit is disregarded-we are committed to possible inequalities of some sort, because although it cannot be shown a priori that people do have different deserts, it does follow from the nature of the concept that they could. In the same way, Equality of opportunity, whatever the other difficulties of that dubious concept, clearly precludes the certainty of Equality of achievement. If, as is sometimes demanded by politicians, everybody ought to have an equal chance of getting into Oxford, it still means (unless the chance is either unity or zero) that some people will, and others will not, get in. The 18-plus is going the same way as the 11-plus, and from having been the ark of the egalitarian covenant is becoming the symbol of inegalitarian wickedness. This change of front reflects neither dishonesty nor outstanding stupidity on the part of egalitarians, but the internal inconsistency of their ideal, absolute Equality. We can secure Equality in certain respects between members of certain classes for certain purposes and under certain conditions; but never, and necessarily never, Equality in all respects between all men for all purposes and under all conditions. The egalitarian is doomed to a life not only of grumbling and everlasting envy, but of endless and inevitable disappointment.
These, perhaps, are arguments which appeal more to conservatives than radicals. Let me end therefore by pointing out the incompatibility of Equality with the other two traditional ideals of radicalism, Fraternity and Liberty.
Fraternity does in part involve one of our concepts of Equality, Equality of Respect, Universal Humanity. But it demands the negation of other Equalities, Formal Equality and the various egalitarian Equalities. It demands that we treat each person as a person for him-, or her-, self and not simply as the bearer of certain  characteristics; the demand is that I should `love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair'. Whatever the logical difficulties in this, at least it amounts to a protest against the paper world in which people are treated not as people but as beings conforming to specifications. We regard ourselves as individuals, each one different, each one a whole person, knobbly, not fitting exactly into any mould: and we do not like it if, in the name of Equality or anything else, we are wrapped up and put in a carton and labelled, indistinguishably from a lot of others. We want to be ourselves, and to be able to get through to other people, rough uncut diamonds though they may be, not separated from them by layers of tissue paper establishing a flabby uniformity between us all. Inevitably in a large society the demand for Fraternity cannot be pushed very far. Personal relationships are emotionally absorbing and time- consuming; we cannot have them with many people. With most people our relationship must be to some extent official, to some extent formal, based on incomplete knowledge and incomplete attention, and therefore determined by only some of the characteristics of the person concerned, not by them all. We cannot be fully fraternal with the public. But we can resist the attempt to make all our private arrangements subject to the formalities that properly pertain only to public ones, and we can resist public encroachment on private affairs; and in so far as we do, we shall be denying the Equalities that egalitarians strive for.
Liberty imposes like limitations. Only, whereas Fraternity limits Equality at the receiving end---the person dealt with wants to be considered as himself, not as the possessor of certain characteristics---, Liberty limits Equality at the doing end---the person who is doing the dealing wants to be free to make his own choices, and not required always to treat similar cases similarly. Equality lays down how we are to treat people: but Liberty entitles us to act as we choose, not as some rule lays down. If I have any Liberty then there are some decisions I am allowed to make on my own; I am free in some cases to act arbitrarily. And if that is so, I may in such cases arbitrarily choose one person rather than another, without there being any ground to justify discrimination. I may choose Jane, and take her to wife, while passing over Bess, her equally well-favoured sister. This is what it is to be free. Freedom is inherently unfair. If we place any value on Freedom at all, we must to that extent compromise the principle of Equality. And we must place some value on Freedom, for to be free in some respects is a necessary condition of discovering oneself as a moral and rational agent. Arid only for such can the question of Equality arise.
Merton College, Oxford.
1. E.g. in a monarchy, the monarch:
Elizabeth II has no private existence and is quite unlike
anybody else. Our laws are not couched altogether in
universal terms, and do pay peculiar respect to the person
of the Monarch.
2. . For a much fuller account, see Morris Ginsberg: ``The Concept of Justice'', this journal 1963, pp. 99-116.
3. . Or, to be exact, both criteria of relevance and criteria of irrelevance. Sometimes the onus of proof is on the man who claims that a certain factor is relevant, sometimes on him who denies it. Differences of skin-pigmentation may be presumed irrelevant, unless the contrary is shown, on any question of employment: differences of hair-pigmentation may be presumed irrelevant, unless the contrary is shown, in a beauty contest. Very roughly, in public life there is a presumption of irrelevance, and we will not be happy about any distinction in the Law, in public service, in the conditions of public employment, or in the award of public contracts unless it can be shown to be relevant: whereas in private life there is a presumption of relevance, and we are disposed to accept any distinction a private individual draws, unless it is clearly an irrelevant one.
4. See, for example, Ralf Dahrendorf: ``On the Origin of Social Inequality'', in Philosophy Politics and Society, ed. Peter Laslet and W. G. Runciman, pp. 88-109.
Click here to see ``Equality in Education''
Click here to see ``Against Equality Again''
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