The Six Best Philosophical Books on Equality

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This page contains a list of the six best philosophical books on equality. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on equality” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on equality. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on equality. Here are the best philosophical books on equality in no particular order:

Equality – Stuart White

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 208 pages | Published: 2006

Publisher description: The demand for equality is central to modern politics. But what exactly do we mean by equality? Does it threaten other important values? Is it a demand we should support or question?

This highly accessible book provides an engaging introduction to the concept of equality and to the debates, historical and contemporary, that surround it. It explains and critically considers how the demand for equality arises in different spheres.

In the political sphere, it explores the relationship between equality and democracy. In the economic and social spheres, it explores the ideal of meritocracy and more radical theories of egalitarian justice developed in the works of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. In the legal sphere, the book discusses the challenges that feminism and multiculturalism pose to conventional conceptions of equal citizenship.

It concludes with an examination of whether equality should go global, and by analyzing contemporary arguments for and against the continuing relevance of equality to the political life of affluent democracies. Throughout, the book considers the tensions internal to the demand for equality and between equality and other important values such as liberty and efficiency.

Drawing on political philosophy, sociology and the history of political thought, the book will be of interest to students and researchers in philosophy and the social sciences and anyone interested in the values that animate democratic political life.

A Theory of Justice – John Rawls

Category: Classic | Length: 560 pages | Published: 1971

Publisher description: Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.

Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.

Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality – Ronald Dworkin

Category: Contemporary | Length: 528 pages | Published: 2002

Publisher description: Equality is the endangered species of political ideals. Even left-of-center politicians reject equality as an ideal: government must combat poverty, they say, but need not strive that its citizens be equal in any dimension. In his new book Ronald Dworkin insists, to the contrary, that equality is the indispensable virtue of democratic sovereignty. A legitimate government must treat all its citizens as equals, that is, with equal respect and concern, and, since the economic distribution that any society achieves is mainly the consequence of its system of law and policy, that requirement imposes serious egalitarian constraints on that distribution.

What distribution of a nation’s wealth is demanded by equal concern for all? Dworkin draws upon two fundamental humanist principles–first, it is of equal objective importance that all human lives flourish, and second, each person is responsible for defining and achieving the flourishing of his or her own life–to ground his well-known thesis that true equality means equality in the value of the resources that each person commands, not in the success he or she achieves. Equality, freedom, and individual responsibility are therefore not in conflict, but flow from and into one another as facets of the same humanist conception of life and politics. Since no abstract political theory can be understood except in the context of actual and complex political issues, Dworkin develops his thesis by applying it to heated contemporary controversies about the distribution of health care, unemployment benefits, campaign finance reform, affirmative action, assisted suicide, and genetic engineering.

Inequality Reexamined – Amartya Sen

Category: Contemporary | Length: 224 pages | Published: 1995

Publisher description: In this deft analysis, Amartya Sen argues that the dictum “all men are created equal” serves largely to deflect attention from the fact that we differ in age, gender, talents, physical abilities as well as in material advantages and social background. He argues for concentrating on higher and more basic values: individual capabilities and freedom to achieve objectives.

Equality of OpportunityJohn E. Roemer

Category: Contemporary | Length: 128 pages | Published: 2000

Publisher description: John Roemer points out that there are two views of equality of opportunity that are widely held today. The first, which he calls the nondiscrimination principle, states that in the competition for positions in society, individuals should be judged only on attributes relevant to the performance of the duties of the position in question. Attributes such as race or sex should not be taken into account. The second states that society should do what it can to level the playing field among persons who compete for positions, especially during their formative years, so that all those who have the relevant potential attributes can be considered.

Common to both positions is that at some point the principle of equal opportunity holds individuals accountable for achievements of particular objectives, whether they be education, employment, health, or income. Roemer argues that there is consequently a “before” and an “after” in the notion of equality of opportunity: before the competition starts, opportunities must be equalized, by social intervention if need be; but after it begins, individuals are on their own. The different views of equal opportunity should be judged according to where they place the starting gate which separates “before” from “after.” Roemer works out in a precise way how to determine the location of the starting gate in the different views.

The Ideal of Equality – Matthew Clayton & Andrew Williams

Category: Anthology | Length: 240 pages | Published: 2002

Publisher description: One of the central debates within contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy concerns how to formulate an egalitarian theory of distributive justice which gives coherent expression to egalitarian convictions and withstands the most powerful anti-egalitarian objections. This book brings together many of the key contributions to that debate by some of the world’s leading political philosophers.

This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:


Other Recommendations:

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