What Is Egalitarianism?

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Australia prides itself on its egalitarianism, but what do we mean by 'egalitarianism'? Is it about treating everybody alike or just about treating like cases alike? Does inequality matter if nobody gets hurt? It is about fairness, and can we talk about fairness if there isn't actually anybody who's being unfair? (Can a roulette wheel be unfair?) This week, a philosophical look at one of the leading beliefs (or myths) of our time.

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode on Egalitarianism and Fairness

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If it is indeed self-evident that all people are created equal, as the writers of the US Constitution declared, how then can we justify the inequalities we see in the world today? This question has puzzled philosophers from long before the Founding Fathers drafted their bold claim, but has been of particular interest to political theorists in the last forty years. Much work has been done on what a meaningful and justifiable understanding of equality would look like – not just what an equal distribution of welfare or of the social surplus (resources, wealth, rights, liberties and opportunities) would look like, but also what it would mean to treat people as equals.

Very few philosophers now would advocate what is known as ‘strict equality’, where everyone would receive exactly the same resources, liberties, opportunities and rights. Although perhaps intuitively appealing (the fairest way to divide many things, after all, is to split them into equal portions), this idea seems to fail on several counts: an equal distribution of wheelchairs, for example, either neglects needs and desert (if no wheelchairs get distributed), or is wasteful (too many wheelchairs are distributed), or gives people what they neither deserve nor need (if everyone gets one). Because of problems like this, contemporary political theorists tend to defend different versions of egalitarianism, where some things are distributed unequally, and yet the whole outcome or process could be regarded as equitable...

Continue reading Helen McCabe's article: Equality

Further Reading

Egalitarianism is a trend of thought in political philosophy. An egalitarian favors equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. An alternative view expands on this last-mentioned option: People should be treated as equals, should treat one another as equals, should relate as equals, or enjoy an equality of social status of some sort. Egalitarian doctrines tend to rest on a background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. So far as the Western European and Anglo-American philosophical tradition is concerned, one significant source of this thought is the Christian notion that God loves all human souls equally. Egalitarianism is a protean doctrine, because there are several different types of equality, or ways in which people might be treated the same, or might relate as equals, that might be thought desirable. In modern democratic societies, the term “egalitarian” is often used to refer to a position that favors, for any of a wide array of reasons, a greater degree of equality of income and wealth across persons than currently exists...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Egalitarianism by Richard Arneson

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Related Topics

If you’re interested in Egalitarianism, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Affirmative Action | Democracy | Equality | Freedom | Global Justice | Justice | Political Philosophy | Socialism

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