Equality by Isaiah Berlin — A Summary

Originally published:
Richard Wollheim and Isaiah Berlin, “Equality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1955): 281–326.

My reference:
Isaiah Berlin, “Equality,” in Concepts and Categories, ed. Henry Hardy, introduction by Bernard Williams, foreword by Alisdair Macintyre, 2nd ed., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 106–134.

“Everybody to count for one, and no one for more than one.” This formula forms the “the irreducible minimum of the ideal of equality”. But by itself, it doesn’t mean much. Like most familiar formulas in political philosophy, it is is vague and its connotations have changed over time. It is not uniquely tied to any philosophical system. One could be an enlightement philosophe, a Hobbesian contractualist, a Benthamite utilitarian, or a theist convinced about the immortality of the soul: the formula would still make sense to each of these. In other words, the connection between the formula and the various philosophical doctrines held by those who have advocated the formula is not a logical one, or one of mutual entailment. That’s to say, that you hold a particular philosophy doesn’t imply that you will also necessarily hold the formula of equality.

On the formula of equality as stated by Berlin, the editor adds the following clarification.

This version of the principle is cited and called ‘Bentham’s dictum’ by Mill in Utilitarianism, chapter 5: Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others (Toronto/London, 1963–91), x 257. Bentham’s own wording is ‘every individual in the country tells for one; no individual for more than one’: Rationale of Judicial Evidence, Specially Applied to English Practice, ed. J. S. Mill from Bentham’s manuscripts (London, 1827), iv 475; The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. J. Bowring (Edinburgh, 1838–43), vii 334. Berlin’s paper originally opened with a version which is perhaps a misremembering of Mill’s: ‘Every man to count for one and no one to count for more than one.’

The question that the essay seeks to answer is what, if any, plausibility the formula has on its own, i.e. when it is detached from the philosophies and philosophers that uphold it. The formula is a specific application of a more general principle. This general principle is one that requires that similar cases be accorded similar treatment. If there is a class of human beings, then all human beings, to the extent that they are similar, should be treated similarly. Also, to the extent that they are dissimilar, they must be treated likewise. The claim made by egalitarians is that human beings are similar. More precisely, that they are equal, and that therefore they should be treated equally.

There are two different claims here. One is a factual one: that men are equal. The other is normative: that they should be treated equally. For some remarks on this, see Bernard Williams’ widely read “The Idea of Equality”. My summary is can be found here.

But human beings do not possess complete social and personal uniformity, i.e. all human beings are not in fact identical. So, the principle is generally revised to mean that all human beings should be treated equally in certain important respects. This implies that if there is a sufficient reason — an important respect in which some human being differs from other human beings — then that human being may be treated differentially.

But if one does not specify and then justify the sufficient reason, then this revised principle becomes trivial tautology. It boils down to “it is reasonable to act in manner x save in circumstances y, in which it is not rational, and any circumstances may be y”. To illustrate, it is reasonable to equally respect everyone’s human rights, except during extraordinary circumstances, in which case it is not rational, and any circumstance (the concerned person is a terrorist, or simply a Dalit, an enemy of the Chief Minister etc.) could be an extraordinary circumstance. The point here is that unless what counts as an important respect in which persons should be treated equally or indeed unequally is properly specified and justified, we will have a situation in which any freaking thing could count as a reason for treating people equally or unequally.

What is more, because all entities are members of more than one class, any kind of behaviour can be safely subsumed under the general rule enjoining equal treatment. That’s to say, a man from America might be prohibited from using the men’s washroom in an Indian city by saying that while he might be a man, he is an American (i.e. not Indian, therefore not similar, therefore not equal). The revised principle of equality (that human beings should be treated equally in certain important respects) is easily reduced to such absurdities.

As Bernard Williams puts it: It would be in accordance with this principle [here, the unspecified/non-revised principle of equality], for example, to treat blacks differently from others just because they were black, or women differently just because they were women, and this cannot accord with anyone’s idea of equality.

The principle of equality itself has an implicit justification. An equal distribution of of benefits (and this would include respect) is “‘natural’, self-evidently right and just, and needs no justification, since it is in some sense conceived as being self-justified”. For instance, a society in which everyone possesses and equal amount of property would need no justification. Equality needs no special reasons. But a society in which there is inequality in the possession of property needs justifications: it rightfully honours the hardworking, it encourages enterprise, it is the foundation for economic growth etc. Of course such justifications may be contested, and they are.

“The assumption is that equality needs no reasons, only inequality does so; that uniformity, regularity, similarity, symmetry, . . . need not be specially accounted for, whereas differences, unsystematic behaviour, change in conduct, need explanation and, as a rule, justification.

This assumption involves (or rather is involved in) what is known in the literature as “the presumption of equality” which has been the subject of some consideration. One of the many, many recent essays treating the issue is this.

This acceptance of this implicit justification, this love of order and symmetry, rest on two notions: that of rules, and of equality itself.


“All rules, by definition, entail a measure of equality. In so far as rules are general instructions to act or refrain from acting in certain ways, in specified circumstances, enjoined upon persons of a specified kind, they enjoin uniform behaviour in identical cases.” The existence of a rule enjoins that those that fall under that rule obey it fully, that is to say equally. Disobedience constitutes an exception, and an offence against the rule. Now to the extent that rules appear to be unavoidable in our moral, social, and political lives, the need for equality in the sense that everybody obeys the rules (equally) seems to be an almost universal need and conviction. To the extent that morality is understood as a system of (internally consistent) rules, then the plea for equality is a plea for living a life in accordance to the rules. Inequality here is the breaking or disobedience of rules. And as before, “to provide no reasons for breaking a rule is described as irrational; to give reasons for obeying rules — save in terms of other rules — is regarded as unnecessary: rules are their own justification”.

Three kinds of objections may be directed at this understanding of equality.

Objection I

The first objection might be this: that the system admits of too many exceptions. This could either be an objection against exceptions as such or against exceptions that are made arbitrarily, i.e. without sufficient reasons.


The second objection might be that the rules themselves are bad or iniquitous. Perhaps some rule may be accused of offending some other higher, wider or more important rule. Others might be rejected because they are simply incompatible with other rules. Or indeed, the equality arising from rules might be suspended in favour of other goals understood to be more important.

The first kind of accusation is often what is meant when it is claimed that a rule is unfair. A rule that that favours Englishmen in the distribution of honours, for instance, might be taken to offend against the rule that says that all humans, irrespective of their nationality, are equal. The latter rule has a wider application which is violated by the former. But the potential to attract this kind of accusation need not be why some rule might be iniquitous. It need only be the case the rule be in conflict with some other rule that does not tend towards equality.

The principle that each is to count for one and none for more than one emerges out of Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy. But consider the utilitarian commitment to happiness/pleasure (put differently, the rule that says the goal of morality is the maximisation of happiness in the society). This commitment is quite compatible with great inequality. “Thus it can be argued that societies organised hierarchically, certain types of medieval society for example, or theocratic societies or even societies founded on slavery, may conceivably offer their members a greater degree of happiness (however this is calculated) than societies in which there is a greater degree of social or economic equality.”


A third objection could be an objection to the very notion of rules. A society may be attacked for living by rules at all. The claim here might be that “a morality not compounded out of rules, but consisting of the pursuit of some ideal in a spontaneous and imaginative way, analogous to the creative activity of a painter or a composer, or to even less disciplined forms of self-expression, where both the use and recognition of rules is at a minimum, is to be preferred”.

Briefly, the objections may be recapitulated thus.

  1. that rules are broken for no sufficient reason; or
  2. that the rules are themselves bad or iniquitous or otherwise inadequate; or
  3. that the rules are deplorable simply because they are rules.

The first is a genuine plea for inequality for it pleads against exceptions. The second is a plea for equality only if it attacks rules that leads to inequality. The third is an attack on the ideal of social equality (at least the kind of equality flowing from rules) as such.


Equality Proper

At is barest, the ideal of social equality can be stated by saying that “everything and everybody should be as similar as possible to everything and everybody else”. Here, “inequality — and this must ultimately mean dissimilarity — would be reduced to a minimum”.

No one has ever tried to realise this absurd ideal but it might be worth considering what this ideal would be like. Τhe biggest argument for equality has been due to the disparity in the possession of goods. These goods could be property, political or social power, status, opportunities for the development of faculties or the obtaining of experiences, social and personal liberties and privileges of all kinds. The argument is that any such disparity offends against either the principle of natural rights or rationality. Those who believe in natural rights are worried not so much about equality as such but with what those natural rights are, how they may be discovered and verified, and whether such rights apply to all men as such or only to some, and if only to some, why? and so on. Those that believe in reason take it that equality extends to the entire field of human relations and can be offended only if there is a sufficient reason to do so. While these two stances often go together, the former stance is quite compatible with inequality for it might be discovered (or argued) that natural rights are after all applicable only to some, or that the natural rights ordain some to possess more goods than others. The latter go further. They would protest against any inequality unless a sufficient reason is given.

Let’s look closer at this latter stance. The inequalities of wealth and position which are so prominent because they affect our human life more crucially than others are only some of the inequalities that may obtain in society. Consider the power wielded by the conductor of an orchestra, a minister in a state, a teacher in a classroom. Even the most committed egalitarian does not denounce this inequality. A fanatical egalitarian might argue that if the differential power of a conductor, a minister, and a teacher is for the purpose of playing a symphony, governing a state, and teaching the young, better that there are no symphonies, no governing, and no teaching. Such views, however are not seriously entertained even by egalitarians.

But there are serious obstacles to equality. Consider the unequal distribution of what might be called natural gifts. In a society where there is a high degree of economic opportunity, the strong, able, cunning, ambitious, relentless, ruthless, etc. are more likely to acquire more power and wealth than those who do not have those qualities. The fanatical egalitarian will be horrified at this. These inequalities must be rooted out. Human beings must be, he might argue, conditioned so that the greatest level of mental and physical qualities is preserved. “Only in a society where the greatest degree of similarity between the members occurs, where physical characteristics, mental endowment, emotional disposition, and conduct are as uniform as possible, where people differ as little as possible from each other in any respect whatever, will true equality be attainable”.

The point is that “so long as there are differences between men, some degree of inequality may occur; and that there is no kind of inequality against which, in principle, a pure egalitarian may not be moved to protest, simply on the ground that he sees no reason for tolerating it, no argument which seems to him more powerful than the argument for equality itself – equality which he regards not merely as an end in itself, but as the end, the principal goal of human life.”

This is the absolute ideal which no serious thinker has ever put forward. But all demands of equality are modifications of this ideal. One modification is that while natural human characteristics (mental or physical) cannot and should not be altered, everyone must be accorded political and legal equality. If equality is granted in the political and judicial sphere (say everyone is allowed equal access to and participation in the government, is granted a certain minimum of liberties), then other spheres (say, the economic) must be left alone. This is the familiar liberal doctrine.

To the objection that political and legal equality leads to economic inequality (where the clever, and enterprising enrich themselves at the expense of others), the liberal reply is that that is the price for political and legal equality. This implies that there is only one way (here, the political and legal) in which men can be “counted as one”. To count men as one in all possible respect is not only impracticable but also undesirable. And in a society where people start off with equal economic rights (to hold property, for instance), civil rights (to free speech, for instance) and political rights (to associate with one another) without any prejudice to birth, colour and other physically unalterable characteristics, in such a society, the liberal argues, equality is not infringed. In effect this is an argument for a liberal laissez faire society is an argument for liberty at the expense of equality. The point here is that in considering, demanding or arguing against equality, ideals other than equality (liberty, in the case above) conspicuously play a vital role. This is so even for philosophers who argue for the widest possible reach of equality.

The doctrine of equality in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793 owes at least as much to him [Condorcet] as it does to Rousseau or other thinkers. Yet even Condorcet contemplates the necessity for the government of human beings by men of enlightenment, above all by experts, men versed in the new, not yet created sciences of the behaviour of man – sociology, anthropology and psychology – who alone can create an organisation in which the greatest number of the desires of rational men will not be frustrated, as they have been hitherto, by prejudice, superstition, stupidity and vice. Yet this elite is plainly to have greater powers than those whom they are to govern disinterestedly. And the reason for this is not merely that, without this, true equality cannot be achieved for the majority of men, but also that certain other ends must be striven for, such as happiness, virtue, justice, progress in the arts and sciences, the satisfaction of various moral and spiritual wants, of which equality, of whatever kind, is only one.


[COMMENT: There follows a discussion of some further aspects of the formula of equality which, the discussion I mean, might be characterised as quaint. I have not bothered to summarise it. I don’t think that discussion is particularly useful. It is very readable. Also, summarising it would only do violence to it. It will be clear why when you read it. I only quote the main thesis — the main thesis as I take it — below.]

“Equality is one of the oldest and deepest elements in liberal thought, and is neither more nor less ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ than any other constituent in them. Like all human ends it cannot itself be defended or justified, for it is itself that which justifies other acts – means taken towards its realisation.”


The Idea of Equality in 20th Century India by Yogendra Yadav — Lecture Transcript

A public lecture delivered at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), organised by Azim Premji University, Bangalore on Thursday, 6 November 2014.

  • As with the previous lecture of this speaker I transcribed, the present transcript also has been edited quite a bit. The speaker is prone to omit articles in his speeches, especially the definite article. These have been supplied. He also has a tendency to add additional information, often a lot of it, about his characters or topics just a sentence or phrase into a theoretical argument or exposition. These additions have therefore been moved in ways I thought appropriate.
  • This lecture starts abruptly. The divisions have been added by yours truly, although where they should be are fairly obvious. And as always with lecture transcripts, the video is embedded at the end.
  • For advanced students, the last section will be of particular interest. The Q&A also addresses some important questions. The point about cultural self-hatred, for instance, worries an audience member who fears that its corollary, which would be to take pride in India’s own traditions, to look at them as, to use the speaker’s words, “a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames”, smacks of the same chauvinism and stridency, although he [the audience member] does not use these terms, that characterise the BJP. As he suggests, perhaps the gulf between the AAP (Yogendra Yadav was with the AAP at the time of the lecture) and the BJP isn’t that great; that perhaps the speaker could sit across the table with Amit Shah and talk! Yadav’s response to that criticism is, I think, important.


It appeared to me that one could go back to it’s [the idea of equality] past and recover as well as understand the ideological/doctrinal foundations. And what I am going to present to you is an overview argument — I won’t be able to get into the specifics — of four or five phases of the evolution of the idea of equality in India through the twentieth century and how we came to where we are today, and finally say a word or two about how it can possibly be recast today which is what possibly connects it to my current birth [as a politician].

I’ll begin tracing that journey from the nineteenth century because, in many ways, it is the later half of the nineteenth century that sets terms for how we were to understand the idea of equality. Just a word about the pre-colonial past. We all have a broad understanding which is that here was a caste-ridden hierarchical society that never contemplated equality. That is the very rough picture with which egalitarians look at our pre-modern past. I don’t know how many of you share that thought. But the beginning of the journey should be rethinking that assumption itself. Because what we have in the pre-modern, pre-colonial past of India are multiple ways of reflecting on equality, except that equality is understood in a very different context.

There are two contexts there: one is equality before God which is the basic unity of mankind [you find this when you look at the Bhakti tradition, Sufi tradition; it’s all about basic unity of mankind, reversal of material hierarchy in view of matters spiritual] and the other is equality within the self which is equanimity. These two are dominant ways of thinking about equality.

This of course is very unfamiliar to modern egalitarians because modern egalitarians want to understand equality in material terms. They want to understand it in terms of distributive equality in terms of goods and commodities. This is not available in that tradition and, therefore, it was very easy for modern egalitarians to say that this was a caste hierarchical society and had no notions of equality. This is just a small footnote and we move on.


The first stop is the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, you have three texts that come up in three different parts of India.

[Comment: More accurately, in the 1860s and 1870s. The date for the first text he mentions (see below) is 1867 and not 1876, as he puts it. Clearly, this is an inadvertent, perhaps a careless, error.]

The first is by a less known Marathi thinker called Vishnubuva Brahmachari [1825–71, born Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale] who wrote this very unusual tract called सुखदायक राज्यप्रकरणी निबंध  [Sukhdaayak Rajyaprakarni Nibandh, translated as “Concerning the Ideal State”, 1867]. It’s a little Plationian vision and it basically advocates communism. He has no western education and he not familiar with any of the western ideas of communism or something of that kind but he proposes an ideal state, somewhat similar to Plato’s Ideal State where property is to be vested in state, where caste is to be abolished, children are to be handed over to kings, and the state is to arrange for education and marriage. This is written in 1867 and by someone who has no formal western education or connect. Equality is treated in material terms. Also, it is not an organising principle of society.

In 1873, we have another text, somewhat better known, by Jyotiba Phule [1827–90, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule] called गुलामगिरी  [Gulamgiri, “Slavery”]. Phule has an English education; he is influenced by European religion and radicals in American revolution. There is a conscious deployment of western categories: freedom, equality, rights. But he twists it by bringing the focus on caste, and subjects the caste system and Brahmanic dominance to a comprehensive critique. Unusually, for his times, he extends this critique to man–woman relations — one of the first Indian thinkers to think about what we would call today “feminism”. He deploys culture and mythology. Phule is no nationalist and he actually supports British regime.

In 1879, in Bengal, comes a very famous essay by a very well known thinker, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterjee), called Samya [Equality]. And most academics who write about the history of the idea of equality usually begin their journey with this essay. This is the first essay written in India which is aware of the western egalitarian tradition and carefully casts itself in that tradition. He is familiar with European socialism and communism. He is not interested in their metaphysics, their philosophy of history and things of that sort. His attention is to the concept of equality and what is specific is his critique of social differences beyond natural differences. He too does a critique of inequality in man–woman relationship as well as exploitation of peasantry. He is also a staunch nationalist. Having written this very first pioneering essay on the idea of equality, he strangely, and formally, withdraws that essay in 1892 saying essentially that what he said was silly. Why? Because the idea of equality is in tension with the idea of nationalism. As a nationalist, he does not want to be seen as exposing fissures in his society, to talk about peasantry, Zamindars and all kinds of inequality.

What we get in these three texts, briefly introduced, is, first, a shift in the idea of equality, he received idea of equality — remember that notion of equality before God, and inner equality. Equality becomes the organising principle of a good society. Equality is now at the centre of thinking about future society which it was not before. Second, it is also shifted to a different domain. That’s to say, it is shifted from a moral and metaphysical and spiritual to the more familiar — to us, today — domain of distribution of material goods, to the distribution of justice. Third, the bearer of responsibility — which earlier was me unto myself — is now the State which is tasked with providing equality. We have now the beginning of somewhat familiar notions of equality which happens in the late nineteenth century.


Let me jump to the early twentieth century. It’s fascinating period, not quite well-researched. And I would urge those of you who may have some interest in the history of ideas to look at this period. The nineteenth century has been explored and looked at. The early twentieth century is fascinating because Indians by this time know that there is socialism, there is communism, they have an idea. Except that the information is fairly limited. This is a period of what I call free translations. We have a broad idea of what socialism might mean and then we do a lot of value addition of our and say this is socialism, this is Marxism, this is communism.

One exemplary text of that sort is Lala Har Dayal‘s Karl Marx: A Modern Rishi [1912]. The title gives you something: Karl Marx is a rishi. Har Dayal has an English education, has been educated abroad, founded of the Ghadar party in the US, and wrote Hints for Self Culture [1934] which became a very famous book. He offers a very sympathetic exposition of Marxist ideas and life but, interestingly, the focus is more on Marx’s life than on Marx’s ideas. It is Marx, the rishi, who undergoes difficulties, who undergoes self-sacrifice — that is the one AHar Dayal highlights.

There is a fairly accurate depiction of Marx’s ideas, but what is his judgment about those ideas? He finds them one-sided and defective, and too focussed on the moral message of communism which is that land should belong to the community. His emphasis is on Marx’s character and he nicely assimilates Marx into nationalism. That is why official histories of Marxism in India are very uneasy about this book. Either they don’t mention this book. Or if they mention, they sort of say, but he never understood Marx. Because, in a sense, what he is doing is that he is incorporating Marx in a native register of sensibilities, of what is in the nationalist movement, and a register of Indian sensibilities of what is it worth celebrating about Karl Marx.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Indian Hindi magazines are full of essays and reports about Karl Marx, and reports about socialism, on the experiment of Russia and there is the feeling that Indians must bring the news to their compatriots except that the news is very inadequate; they don’t really know facts. Now, this can be seen as a problem but I look at it as an occasion for creativity. This was the one short period when Indian reading of socialism and Marxism was at its creative best. Lack of information gives you a lot of room to be creative. So, Indians were mixing their interpretation. There were value additions in terms of facts, imaginations, dreams. That phase is really worth looking at because, in a sense, Indians were writing their dreams into what they thought was Russia. This was a period when Indian socialism was experimental. It is, as i said, a period of free translations. I read your text and I translate it freely to say what I think it means.

This period is to my mind interesting because in this open ended engagement with the idea of equality, Marxist ideas are selectively received and rearranged. At some stage, I called it a pidgin socialism — pidgin as in pidgin languages, pidgin and creole languages where they pick a few words and phrases from a mother language and using those words, you describe the entire universe. So Indian socialism at his stage was a pidgin language where the received vocabulary of Marxism and socialism was truncated, cut into pieces, and rearranged. That’s what we were witnessing at that time. Of course, official Marxism, or the official left, does not think very much about that phase because it’s embarrassing. I really think that’s one of the most creative phases of Indian socialism and the Indian left.

Interestingly, there was no specification about how India was to be read. How should an egalitarian look at India was still an open question. Left to your imagination and your reading. Then comes the guillotine. In 1922, a Bengali thinker produces which signals the end of imagination, end of creativity, and the end of free-floating ideas. The thinker is Manabendra Nath Roy [1887–1954, born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya] and the book is India in Transition. Unlike all these other people, Roy actually has read Marx; he knows European languages; he has some access to German; he has travelled; he has actually seen it: in fact, in 1921 he has just been invited to Russia by Lenin and he has a brief encounter with Lenin. Roy writes a book explaining what is India and what is a correct egalitarian reading of India. I really think that once you read that book, you can almost read the history of the next seventy years of left Marxist writings of India because he establishes a paradigm. Its an astonishing work: its marked both by the brilliance of his imagination and the power of his writing. The trouble of course is that all such powerful writings tend to constrain future imaginations.

[Roy’s life is something which you can incidentally read like a thriller. It’s an astonishing story of an Indian revolutionary who set out to purchases arms, ends up in Mexico, becomes a leading political figure in Mexico, goes to Europe, makes friends with Lenin, goes to advice the Chinese communist party about how to create revolution in China — thankfully they did not listen to him, and comes back, sets up a communist party in India and so on.]

India in Transition is preceded by a shorter book which he wrote in 1918. This book had been written in Mexico. It was called India: Her Past, Present and Future. For someone inclined to do research, it would be very instructive to compare this book with the book he wrote four years later because both the books offer dramatically different readings of India and tells you what happens to Roy when he converts to Marxism.

What India in Transition is to place India in a European trajectory. It puts it on a graph and enables you to plot India, where the axes are familiar and given, borrowed from European history. He says capitalism is already established in India. However, the bourgeoisie is weak and cannot be robustly anti-colonial. It’s 1922 and Roy is writing it in Europe. There has already been the rise of the proletariat and intense class struggle has begun in India. Caste system, he says is already finished. Class is the reality of India. Congress’ nationalism represents an unreliable character of the capitalist class, and therefore what you need is national liberation with socialist revolution. [Sorry, this is a five line summary of a 400-page book.]

Roy establishes this framework of understanding India. What is interesting about this new paradigm, this new orthodoxy, is that it invites you to think of India as a country which is in transition. The name itself is very interesting. Transition presupposes two poles: both an origin, one where it started and a telos, one towards which it is transiting. Roy has a deep faith in European modernity and he has the peculiar habit of describing every Indian event with a parallel in European history. So, every single Indian character is a distorted version of a true and authentic European character.

Equality is of course distributive and he combines it with militant nationalism. Unlike Bankim, he has no difficulty in reconciling Nationalism, anti-colonialism with a critique of inequality within. So, in this paradigm, you have strong universalism where the contingencies of European experience are seen as natural and necessary forms through which every society has to pass. There is also a distance from anything traditional. It simply turns its back on India’s intellectual resources. Because that would be backward, that would be chauvinist, that would be conservative: he turns his back to all that. India’s specificity is understood as a transient and surface specificity which very soon will give way to proper correct forms that you would find in European history.

So, the idea that what you witness today is only a recent or distant past of Europe is an idea that firmly gets entrenched with Roy. There is a unitary view of India. That India may have diversity within and could actually comprise all kinds of social forms and production forms is something that doesn’t interest him and you can’t blame someone who is writing that first book which gives you an overview. And what you have is a text-centric experience-distant view of reality. There is no space for experiences and practices of actors. The categories that the actors themselves use are useless because they don’t understand what is really happening. Now, all that I have described continued to be strong hallmarks of Marxist readings of Indian society for the next fifty to sixty years to come. Strong universalism, distance from traditions, Indian specificity as a transient form, unitary view of India in some ways, and text-centric experience-distant view of reality. That’s why I think Roy is simply such a powerful figure for the twentieth century.


After that, there is a long period — from the 1920s to the next sixty years. There are at least two traditions in this period. There is an orthodox tradition and there is an unorthodox tradition. The orthodox tradition is what faithfully follows more or less the framework set by Roy. Interestingly, Roy’s own framework allowed for two or three different readings which is what the left in India kept playing with. In the orthodox tradition, I would put India’s official communists who were radical in many ways but their ideas are what I would call conformist. The CPI, the CPI(M), the Naxalites: all of them work within the frame given by Roy. The Congress socialists, specially the BSP and the Janata family and the Congress left, all of them are part of this orthodox tradition. The BSP tradition of socialism also very much falls within that orthodox reading. At the same time, you have an unorthodox/heterodox tradition which emerges because this idea of equality enters into an encounter with something outside. What was that outside? It could be two or three things? One is the encounter with Gandhi. This encounter was a source of so much of soul searching and creative thinking as to how to engage with the old man, a concern that bothered the Indian left, especially the socialists, a great deal.

Within the Indian left there were the communists who were outside, and the socialists who became part of the Congress and were within. Specially those who were within has serious existential anxieties about how to deal with the old man. Partly because the old man was very kind. So, Jayprakash Narayan was the son-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi because Gandhiji had adopted his wife as his daughter. And interestingly, the first proper Marxist critique of Gandhi was written by Narayan living as Gandhi’s son-in-law in his ashram where he says Gandhi may be a nice person but in the last instance he is an agent of the bourgeoisie. The point is that you have these existential encounters that keep happening. The encounter with Gandhi leads people like Narayan, Vinoba Bhave [1895–1982, Vinayak Narahari Bhave], Rammanohar Lohia [1910–67] and Acharya Javadekar [1894–1955, Shankar Dattatraya Javdekar] to reinterpret Marxism and inequality in India.

A different kind of encounter happens when some of them encounter religious traditions. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi [1872–1944, Buta Singh Uppal] in what is now Pakistan encounters Islam and he wants to reconcile egalitarianism with Islam. Bhagwan Das [1869–1958], another thinker of the 30s and 40s, wants to reconcile socialism with the Vedas and wants to think of Vedic socialism. Acharya Narendra Dev [1889–1956] is a renowned scholar of Buddhism and he wants to understand egalitarianism through Buddhist lens. So, you have all these experiments that are happening and of course, not to forget Ambedkar [1891–1956, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar] who simply steps out of all of these and thinks of equality in a very different way. All these experiments are taking place. I won’t bore you with each of the experiments but I’ll just pick one thinker, Rammanohar Lohia someone from whom I have learnt so much.

Lohia is an Indian socialist who, unlike most Indians of that time, goes not to Britain or America but Germany to study; he comes back and is a rebel nationalist socialist; he becomes one of the founder members of the Congress socialist party, and after independence, is a leader of the Indian socialist party. He is someone who tries to rethink the foundations of the idea of equality. Two interesting things about Lohia: he is the first Indian thinker to directly confront the question of Eurocentricity of the idea of equality. He has a famous essay called “Doctrinal Foundations of Asian Socialism”, and it basically says that, so far, the idea of equality has been colonised by Eurocentric imagination and that we Asians cannot possibly borrow European socialism and live with it and that we have to reinvent the foundations of socialism in our context. And what is wrong with socialist thought?

Lohia says “No greater disaster can befall socialism than if the historical peculiarities of its career in Europe sought to be universalised and reproduced in the other two-thirds of the world. Socialism in Europe has been gradual, constitutional, and distributive. Socialism henceforth and in the rest of the world must be drastic, unconstitutional when necessary, and lay the accent on production.” He goes on to write a critique of Marxist economics; how development on one was preconditioned on underdevelopment in the other. Lohia writes an unfinished book called Economics after Marx and his project thereafter is to do a critique of economics, politics, and philosophy and history that socialism has presupposed. And he goes on to rewrite all of these.

In Lohia, you have an extension of the critique of Marxism in terms of the critique of the dominant frames of knowledge, limits of modern civilisation and critique of cosmopolitanism that passes for universalism in our part of the world. And he searches for an alternative universalism. There has been a lot of literature and research in the last twenty years on alternative modernities and to me it appears that one of the first Indian thinkers to anticipate that is Ram Manohar Lohia. He actually says that in India we can produce modernity of a kind that Europe has never known and cannot imagine. So, there is a search for alternative modernities.

He wants to produce a non-provincial reading of history, forward-looking modernism, a third camp in world politics and an alternative civilisation. What Lohia does is that he recasts the idea of revolution. He basically say that the idea of revolution that has come to us from Marxism is based on only one of the aspects, which is class. What we need, he says, are seven revolutions [सप्तक्रांति, sapta kranti] at the same time. What are these? Against gender inequalities — and Lohia is again one of the early thinkers from outside a proper feminist tradition, one of the first egalitarian thinkers to lay emphasis on gender equality; against caste inequalities; against inequalities between rich and poor; against racial inequalities; against inequalities among nations; also against encroachment of privacy by collectives; and finally for civil disobedience and resistance to injustice. So what he does is that he opens up thinking about equality to multiple dimensions and what he does is to move away from that debate about whether caste or class is real, which of them is the real distinction around which society needs to be organised and reorganised, and so on. He says that you have to look at all of them at the same time.

In a very short essay called “The Concept of Equality”, he actually changes the received ways of thinking about inequality — it is a very short essay, almost incomplete where at the end he is brushing up not having enough time to spell it out. What he does there is to say that what we have called equality so far is equality in the material realm and in the internal dimension which is to say material equality within a nation or a country. He thinks we need to think afresh. Equality has a material and a spiritual dimension and it should be realised in the external and in the internal domain. It gives you a 2×2 grid.

In the material realm, we first have a familiar one, which inward approximations [or equality] among classes within a country. The second one is somewhat familiar as well: equality among nations/countries in the world and Lohia keeps saying that Marxism draws you away from equality across different coutnries and much of the communist politics takes you away from that. Interestingly, he then says, in the spiritual realm, what is external and internal equality. In the external domain, spiritual equality would mean kinship, fraternity, बंधुत्व (bandhutva, “brotherhood”). And in the domain, equality should mean equanimity, समदृष्टि (samadhrishti), समभाव (samabhaav). It is one of the rare attempts in the egalitarian tradition of India to reconnect with that other notion of equality that we had abandoned in the nineteenth century.


I’ll take a jump again and come to the last phase which is after 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union, the fall of dominant socialist paradigms. There is a dead end although nothing really dies in India — Stalin may die in the USSR but he would continue to live in India; Victorian English after a few years would be spoken only in India, nowhere else! The dominant left ways of thinking suddenly come to a halt. They reach a dead end. The collapse of the Soviet Union leads to the political extinction of distinct socialist political streams. There is an abandonment of official socialism. It becomes embarrassing.

[Today, if you call yourself a socialist, it almost looks like a gaali. When people have to attack Aam Aadmi Party, they say, look at people like Yogendra, they are socialists. Full stop. Q.E.D. That’s the end of it.]

But this is the time when the idea of equality is being reinvented by those who do not officially affiliate to the egalitarian tradition. It is being reiterated in farmers’ movements, women’s movements, Dalit movements, etc. Victims of development and displacement are rewriting the rules of what equality should mean, what kind of struggles we need for the next century. You have lots of new activist thinkers. Some of them are new Gandhians, ecologists, reconstructed socialists, Dalit and feminist theorists. Allow me to pick just one: Kishen Pattnaik [1930–2004]. He wrote a book for which we don’t have an English translation but what we can do is read his Odiya writings and actually make it available.

[I always wonder why D. R. Nagaraj [1954–98, Doddaballapura Ramaiah Nagaraj] and Pattnaik are not available to the rest of the world. Our friend Prithvi [Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi who edited The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India, a collection of essays by Nagaraj] has done some service and Nagaraj, I believe, is available in English. So, we should do for Pattnaik.]

Pattnaik is a thinker of the new social movement and through the 80s, 90s, till his death, he is reimagining what it would mean to be egalitarian, socialist although he stops using the word socialism. And in his book when he is asked to describe his ideology, he says this is a देशज विचार (deshaj vichar, literally “indigenous idea/thought”). He doesn’t call it समाजवाद (samaajavaad, “socialism”) even though he was a समाजवादी (samaajavadee, “socialist”). What he does is that he reengages with Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation. And within the egalitarian tradition, he insists that we need to rethink the very idea of development.

So, Pattnaik brings to the very heart of the egalitarian imagination the critique of development which has been developing outside the egalitarian tradition. He invites us to look for new forms of resistance among people who are fighting displacement, among subnational movements like those in Assam and Punjab which were seen by the progressives and left as chauvinist movements, and asks us to reengage with farmers’ movements. No wonder he was a friend of Prof. Nanjundaswamy [1936–2004, Mahantha Devaru Nanjundaswamy] who we should recall today. He doesn’t provide a full-fledged frame of how to rethink the idea of equality for the twenty-first century. But we can try and develop one looking at this entire history.


Having done this survey, I will just talk about two things towards the end. One is to say whether we discover some new intellectual resources through this history. And second, whether we have some nodes around which we can recast the idea of equality. So, let me end by stating a few things there because, in many ways, and that is what connects to my present birth, politics of the twentieth century is about reimagining what it means to be left, what it means to be radical, what it means to be socialist. These words are dead; they are gone; they don’t have purchase with the new generation; they don’t have purchase with the victims of oppression and injustice. But there is oppression; there is injustice; there is inequality. How do we recast it is the question we need to ask.

Some of the resources available to us are — as I said — early responses to socialism which emphasise the ethical core of socialism rather than its paraphernalia of historical materialism and everything else. We also have unusual encounters — I just mentioned Sindhi, Das, Dev, Narayan, Javadekar — which produced very unusual conceptual resources for us to go back and try and recover. There are external resources available which the idea of equality has not sufficiently made use of. Narayan Guru [1854–1928], Ambedkar, and Periyar [1879–1973, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy]. There are resources offered by feminists, ecologists, and the Swaraj tradition in the post-Gandhian Gandhism. These are all resources available for recasting the idea of equality today. But how do we recast it?

I will just raise a few questions. First, must equality be the central organising principle of politics? This is what egalitarians always thought. They always thought equality is not just one of the values but that it is to be the central organising principle. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that radical politics of the future need not place the idea of equality at the center. It has to be one of the organising principles. Why does it have to be the central principle?

Second, should the state be the principal agency for social transformation? This has been almost a matter of faith for all egalitarians and that’s why harking back to the state, the public sector, license-quota raj: if there’s a problem, the state has to solve it. This is not what people thought a hundred-fifty years ago and maybe they were right. Can we think of multiple agencies? This excessive reliance on the state as the agency for social transformation is probably overdone.

Third, can European modernity be the cultural touchstone for politics of equality. It has remained so. Much of the egalitarian tradition has treated European modernity as the cultural touchstone. Everything is with reference to that. Can we not rethink that?

And finally, how do we ground politics of equality in partial truths, contingencies, and particularities. Much of the egalitarian tradition has participated in that strong form of universalism. Need we do that? Lohia opens his book Marx, Gandhi, and Socialism by reflecting of the idea of partial truth, by saying that truth is partial — which then and still looks very odd for a practicing politician, and which is a strand of Lohia that no one picked up on. But in many ways that idea opens the possibility of a new epistemology of egalitarianism. The attempt to ground egalitarianism in a strong positivist universalism is something that needs to be questioned. And that allows us to understand India in a different way. How do we relate to India’s past? Is India’s past only a source of problems and embarrassments, the source of these wretched, negative, conservative traditions? Or can we look at it equally as a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames? That’s one question we need to reflect on.

How do we erase elements of self-hatred that pass off as radicalism in India? Sorry, it’s stated somewhat strongly but so much of what passes for radicalism is nothing but cultural self-hatred. This is passed off sometimes as radicalism, sometimes as left, sometimes as modernity, or whatever. But no society evolves by simply presenting self-hatred. And the strength of European socialism was that it picked up the best of European traditions; it actually picks up the best of Christian values and incorporates those. Our radicalism, our egalitarianism however wants to turn its back on all that our traditions have to offer. So, do we really need to hate ourselves, our cultures so much? How do we learn from European social theory?

The manner in which much of egalitarian thinking of the twentieth century has related to European social theory is to treat it as a repository of abstractions which can be brought and applied to India. The assumption of course is that these are true universal abstractions. I am not too sure. I have come to believe that underlying each of these abstractions is are special and peculiar contingencies of the experiences of a tiny part of the world called Europe. So, when we use the word “state”, in small tiny brackets, there is some Europe inscribed there. Similarly, when we say “society”. And so with most concepts in social theory.

To my mind, the challenge for egalitarian traditions is to empty European social theory of its contingent experiences which are lodged inside these concepts and to fill these concepts again with experiential concepts and practices drawn from our Indian reality. This is as much a challenge for egalitarians as for much of our social science. It is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. The challenge today is not to turn our back to this hundred-fifty engaging years of thinking about equality — which is quite fashionable today because somehow we have persuaded ourselves, especially if we read the pink press, that ideas like equality are matters of the past — but to reconceptualise and reformat it for a new kind of radical politics.

It is possible and likely that this radical politics will not call itself by any familiar name. It will not call itself socialist, it will not call itself left, and it shouldn’t, as long as it speaks to concerns about inequality, injustice, exploitation, and wants to find a way past that. This, as I said, is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. And what I meant to do today was to invite you to join everyone in this theoretical and political challenge.

Equality and Justice by David Miller — A Summary

David Miller, “Equality and Justice,” Ratio 10, no. 3 (December 17, 2002): 222–37.


The relationship between equality and justice is both complicated and frequently misunderstood. Should they be kept separate as some who claim that justice has nothing to do with equality except in the purely formal sense advocate? Or are they one and the same — principles that exist simultaneously — as some prominent philosophers who advocate distributive justice contend? These are the two broad currents of thought with respect to the principles of equality and justice.

If the second understanding is correct, the fact that these principles draw such different reactions in political debate must be explained. To declare oneself committed to justice would be to indulge in an exercise of banality whereas to declare oneself committed to equality (unless qualified and specified) would be politically hazardous. This points to the danger of amalgamating the two. However, there does seem to be a strong connection — at least stronger than what those in the first camp are willing to admit —between the two.

“I want to suggest a third view: there are two different kinds of valuable equality, one connected with justice, and the other standing independently of it.” The first is distributive and concerns distribution of benefits of a certain kind. The second is social — one might call it equality of status — and identifies a social ideal which stipulates recognition of persons as equals.


Justice is not always egalitarian. To render each her due, to use the classic formula, might require unequal distribution. There are cases, however, where justice has to be egalitarian.

Nam iustitia, quae suum cuique distribuit, quid pertinet ad deos? hominum enim societas et communitas, ut vos dicitis, iustitiam procreavit.

Then justice, which assigns to each his own — what has this to do with the gods? justice, as you tell us, is the offspring of human society and of the commonwealth of man.

Cicero, De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), III.15.

For one, justice does require equal distribution when no one can lay claim to all or part of whatever it is that needs distribution. That’s to say that the benefit to be allocated is a divisible good whose existence no one can advance a claim for. Such cases may be called manna-from-heaven cases.

A second case where justice requires equal distribution is when a distribution has to be made in conditions of uncertainty about people’s respective claims. This may be extended to cases where the relevant criterion of distribution is need, but there is no sure way of knowing what different people’s relative needs are. The point being that sharing resources equally will minimise the expected deviation from a perfectly just distribution. It may be applied even to cases where there is a scepticism about the feasibility of measuring desert, in practice if not in principle. The idea here is that in real cases, it is nearly always impossible to disentangle what someone is responsible for from the effects of factors like their native endowments for which they are not responsible.

These two arguments are negative in nature. The first supposes that there are no relevant differences to be considered while the second supposes that there exist no proper evidence or computational skill to reach the just solution.

A third argument would contend that there are certain social groups whose members are entitled to equal treatment by virtue of membership. The claim to equality flows from the very fact of membership and the intuition that to deny a member an equal share of the advantages is unjust. Such a group could be anything from a local squash club to the political community.

It might be objected here that membership does not entitle one to an equal distribution but only to an absolute amount of something.

As a response, we might consider the case of rights of citizenship. There are a range of services that come with citizenship as citizenship rights. To take one of these rights, we might think about public transport. It is difficult to start thinking about the language that would be required to articulate demands for some absolute level of public transport. It would be difficult in other words to define a right to some absolute level of free movement. From the perspective of citizenship, what is important is that whatever transport system is adopted should as far as possible treat people equally.

But is the equality that is demanded in these groups anything more than contingent convention? In other words, isn’t it the case that the political community — this is even more intuitive in the case of the squash club — happened to be created such that members have equal rights.

It might be replied, although the objection is not completely off the mark, that the value the groups have would be lost if they were stratified. “Associating as equals provides us with a kind of recognition that is essential to the modern self.” Of course, it is not a universal truth about human beings that they need recognition in precisely this form, i.e., of equality, which is why the objection is not wholly off the mark. “But for people like us recognition must take this form, and so we insist that our most important memberships — above all membership of the nation-state — should be on the basis of equality.”


Now, an exploration of equality as a social ideal independent of justice (see Section I).

Social equality concerns how people regard on another, and how they conduct their social relations. It has little to do with actual configurations of power, prestige, wealth or physical endowments. What is of consequence is that despite inequality in terms of particular dimensions, say physical strength, as a member of the community, each enjoys an equal standing. This idea of social equality is deeply embedded in the moral consciousness of contemporary societies. When people recoil from equality, they are recoiling from across-the-board distributive equality.

Social equality is a kind of equality because it identifies a form of life where people treat one another as equals; where they act on the assumption that each person has an equal standing that transcends particular inequalities. The reason why social equality is valuable is because it — the horizontal linking of people — is the only feasible basis for solidarity, dignity, and respect.

While not itself a distributive ideal, social equality has distributive implications. First, it requires that our most important associations — the political community, for instance — should be formed on the basis of equality such that citizens have equal voting rights, equal welfare rights, and so forth. Second, it might shape other practices of distributive justice in that it will impose constraints on practices even if it does not determine their form. For instance, it will prevent the emergence of large-scale, cumulative inequalities of advantage which make it difficult for people to live together on terms of equality.

“To conclude: I believe that neither the cause of justice nor the cause of equality has been helped by political philosophers who have run the two ideas together under the heading of ‘egalitarian justice’. Instead, we need to think about two kinds of equality: equality in distribution, which in some cases (but not others) is a requirement of justice, and the quite distinct idea of equality of status, or social equality. This too has implications for distribution, but they are much less direct and depend upon sociological claims about the way in which differences in income or education, say, are converted into inequalities of social class.”

The Idea of Equality by Bernard Williams — A Summary

Williams, Bernard. 2005. “The Idea of Equality.” In In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, edited by Geoffrey Hawthorn, 97–114. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Originally appeared in P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman. eds. 1962. Philosophy, Politics and Society: A Collection. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


In political discussion, the idea of equality is asserted in statements of fact — that people are equal — as well as in statements of principles or aims — that people should be treated equally. The problem is that the idea, in both instances, can be interpreted too strongly or too weakly.

The two go significantly together: on the one hand, the point of the supposedly factual assertion is to back up social ideals and programmes of political action; on the other hand, those political proposals have their force because they are regarded ... as affirming an equality which is believed in some sense already to exist, and to be obscured or neglected by actual social arrangements.

Regarding the first, one could claim strongly that all people are equal in all those respects that warrant equal treatment. This would amount to peddling in patent falsehood for people are in fact not equal in all respects. Yet, to say that it is in our common humanity, that is, in the mere fact that we are all humans, that we are equal would be to say nothing useful.

Regarding the second, the principle cannot possibly demand that everyone should be treated alike in all circumstances (or even as much as possible). But, the principle cannot also be reduced to the mere claim that different people should be treated differently. This amounts to saying that for every difference in the way people are treated, some general reason or principle of differentiation must be given. One could, on this weak interpretation, simply justify discriminatory treatment towards, for instance, women by saying that women are different!

The goal of the essay then is to “advance a number of considerations that can help to save the political notion of equality from these extremes of absurdity and of triviality. … These considerations will … enable us, starting with the weak interpretations, to build up a position that in practice can have something of the solidity aspired to by the strong interpretations”.

Common Humanity

The assertion of our community is certainly insufficient for the idea of equality but it is still substantial. It entails not just the recognition that we belong to the species homo sapiens, speak a language, use tools, live in societies and so on, but also the realisation of other less obvious but important characteristics such as the capacity to feel pain (physical or otherwise), affection, frustration and the like. These second group of characteristics important for the idea of equality for there are and have been political arrangments that neglected these characteristics in the case of certain groups.

[T]hat is to say, they treat certain people as though they did not possess these characteristics, and neglect moral claims that arise from these characteristics and which would be admitted to arise from them.

One could object that the neglect of these characteristics is only on the level of moral claims. In other words, it is not the presence of these characteristics but their moral relevance that is neglected. For instance, a slave owner could  claim that the blacks are being discriminated against not because they don’t have the capacity to feel pain (he might well concede this fact) but because of some further characteristic, perhaps  the fact that they are black.

This objection assumes a sharp distinction between fact and value and effectively asserts that for any fact such as the capacity to feel pain or the colour of the skin to become a matter of moral relevance, one has to engage in moral evaluation and thus commit to a moral principle. The slave owner is, in this view, adopting a particular moral principle. However, to make the capacity to feel pain morally irrelevant but the colour of the skin morally relevant is no moral principle but a purely arbitrary assertion. In any case, this is conceded by even those who practice colour discrimination.

If any reasons are given at all, they will be reasons that seek to correlate the fact of  blackness with certain other considerations ... such as insensitivity, brute stupidity, and ineducable irresponsibility. Now these reasons are very often rationalizations, and the correlations claimed are either not really believed or quite irrationally believed by those who claim them. But this is a different point; the argument concerns what counts as a moral reason, and the rationalizer broadly agrees with others about what counts as such.

The point is that “those who neglect the moral claims of certain people that arise from their human capacity to feel pain, and so forth, are overlooking or disregarding those capacities; and are not just operating with a special moral principle.” This beings so, the assertion of the platitude that we are equal in that we are all human beings carries great weight. To this capacity for pain could be added even less obvious needs such as the “desire for self-respect” and suchlike characteristics.

Moral Capacities

So far, the respects in which people can be counted alike —  the capacity to suffer, the need for self-respect — has been negative i.e., people have been understood as recipients in certain moral relations. However, people are also thought equal in certain positive respects i.e., things that they can achieve — the capacity for virtue or the capacity for achieving the highest moral worth.

This notion is problematic because there are no purely moral capacities. Some capacities are more relevant for the attainment of virtue — the capacity for intelligence as opposed to, say, the capacity to lift heavy objects, for instance — but such capacities can also be exercised in non-moral matters — in an examination, for instance. And in such non-moral matters, such capacities would be understood as differing from one person to the next just like other natural capacities.

There are some who contend that moral worth has nothing to do with natural capacities as these capacities are are unequally and fortuitously distributed. Immanuel Kant [Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals 1785, see the Second Essay/Section] epitomises such a view by claiming that the only consideration of relevance for moral worth is that everyone is equally a rational moral agent and that on this basis alone, everyone is owed an equality of respect. All other contingent and empirical capacities of natural excellence or lack thereof are irrelevant. Kant makes this detachment (of moral worth from contingent and unequal natural capacities) workable at a great cost: by making the rational moral agency of the person a transcendental characteristic independent of the unequal natural capacities that people have.

The difficulty here is the fact that the moral agent and ideas of responsibilty — “presumably the central case of treating them as moral agents” — that attaches to him must have an empirical basis to have any relevance.

It seems empty to say that all people are equal as moral agents, when the question, for instance, of people’s responsibility for their actions is one to which empirical considerations are clearly relevant, and one which moreover receives answers in terms of different degrees of responsibility and different degrees of rational control over action.

Yet, even if we reject the transcendental basis for the notion of respect, the notion need not be rendered meaningless. For, there is certainly a difference between treating a person from a technical point of view and from his own point of view. To illustrate, one could look at a plumber or a person who has spent his life trying without success to invent a certain machine and pass the technical judgment that both are failures. This judgment might be accepted from the “technological point of view”.

But of course,  professional “titles” [the fact that one is a  “plumber” or a “junior executive”] or the failures or successes of ones activities are not the only relevant considerations. The plumber might be doing his job out of desperation or because he wants to be one. Also, despite failing, the inventor’s devotion to his work and his desire to succeed are relevant for him. The point is that human beings are conscious beings with intentions and purposes and that people should be considered from this “human point of view”.

Still, this leaves problematic the issue of cases where people are exploited and degraded to such a degree that they “do not see themselves differently from the way they are seen by the exploiters; either they do not see themselves as anything at all, or they acquiesce passively in the role for which they have been cast.”

In any case, “[the fact that human beings are conscious beings with intentions and purposes] enjoins us not to let our fundamental attitudes to people be dictated by the criteria of technical success or social position, and not to take them at the value carried by these titles and by the structures in which these titles place them. This does not mean, of course, that the more fundamental view that should be taken is in the case of everyone the same: on the contrary. But it does mean that everyone is owed the effort of understanding, and that in achieving it, people should be abstracted from certain conspicuous structures of inequality in which we find them.”

In passing this injunction, it is being assumed that  people are beings who are necessarily and to some indeterminate extent conscious of themselves and of the world they live in. And the reflective consciousness that people have about their situation or their “titles” may be enhanced or diminished by their social condition. This social element is what makes the considerations relevant for issues of political equality. On its own, the mere injunction that “everyone is owed the effort of understanding” has nothing to do with political equality.

One could, I think, accept this [injunction] as an ideal, and yet favour, for instance, some kind of hierarchical society, so long as the hierarchy maintained itself without compulsion, and there was human understanding between the orders. In such a society, everyone would indeed have a very conspicuous title which related him or her to the social structure; but it might be that most people were aware of the human beings behind the titles and found each other for the most part content, or even proud, to have the titles that they had.

Equality in Unequal Circumstances

So far, the considerations have been about cases where people have been understood to be equal. But the idea of equality is invoked even in cases, especially with respect to distribution of or access to goods, where people are agreed to be unequal. In such cases, a distinction may be drawn between inequality of need and inequality of merit. In the former, it may safely be presumed that that those who need the good actually desire it — for instance, those who are ill actually need/desire medical care.

In the latter, the same presumption cannot be made for all instances — for instance, those without merit may legitimately desire a university education/those with merit might legitimately not want it. There is a competitive element to the case of merit and as such, we have to consider not just the distribution of the good [in this case, a university education] but also the distribution of the opportunity for achieving that good which might conceivably be distributed equally. This is the idea of the equality of opportunity.

In both cases of need and merit, the matter of the relevance of reasons (for needing treatment, or getting admitted to a university) appears. Lets take the case of need to illustrate. Ill health a necessary condition for getting medical treatment. But in many societies, ill health is not a sufficient condition with money serving as a further requirement. The notions of equality and inequality have to be now applied to the rich ill and the poor ill (and not just the the well and the ill as we should). This is an irrational state of affairs.

One might object that ill health is at most a ground of the right to receive medical aid but that it does not warrant its fulfilment. A person might have the right but not the power or resources to actually secure those rights. In other words, the reasons are insufficiently operative.

There is something in the distinction that this objection suggests: there is a distinction between people’s rights, the reasons why they should be treated in a certain way, and their power to secure those rights, the reasons why they can in fact get what they deserve.

The combination of the relevance and the operativeness of reasons forms a genuine moral weapon which can be marshaled in cases where people are agreed to be unequal without at the same time being concerned with the equality of people as a whole. This strengthens the weak principle [that for every difference in the way people are treated, some general reason or principle of differentiation must be given] by stipulating that the reasons thus given be relevant and operative.

Similar considerations apply to cases of merit. One difference to keep in mind however is that, while in the case of need, it is clear that certain sorts of need warrant certain corresponding goods [illness warrant medical treatment], in the case of merit the connection is not clear [academic capability warrants a university education?]. If a person objects to the institution of expensive private schools for being unequally accessible to intelligent but poor students, a defender could either claim that the right to access is not a sufficient condition or he could even, radically, dispute that there is any connection between intelligence and the subsequent right to a superior private education. This is not to survey such disputes but to augment the point already established that for differences in the way that people are treated, reasons should be given.

Now, the political sense of the notion of equality of opportunity — understood to mean providing equal opportunity for everyone in society to secure certain goods — will be considered. This notion requires that a good, whatever it is, (a) is desired by large numbers of people, (b) can be achieved earned or achieved, and (c) cannot be secured by all those who might desire it.

The third requirement covers at least three different cases: the good may be necessarily limited —  it cannot be both be secured by everyone and continue to be that good e.g., positions of prestige; the good may be contingently limited — not everyone actually manages to fulfil the conditions necessary to secure it even if all conceivably might; and the good may be fortuitously limited — there is simply not enough of it for everybody.

The notion of equality of opportunity may be construed as a notion that stipulates that a limited good shall in fact be distributed on grounds that do not exclude any section a priori. However this formula is problematic. For instance, a senior secondary school might allocate its seats based on the ability of applicants as shown by their Class 10 marks as opposed to, say, their physical height. This appears perfectly reasonable.

But doesn’t this already exclude certain people, namely those securing grades below a certain threshold, just as the other condition would, if implemented, exclude people below a certain height? Perhaps the exclusion might be admitted based on some appropriate and rational ground(s). However, there is no easy way out of this puzzle. For it would allow people to  claim that it is quite appropriate and rational to filter applicants based on height — which, given that the goal of the school is to educate, is patently absurd.

The notion of equality of opportunity thus is more complex that it initially appeared. Not only should there be no exclusion from access except on appropriate and rational grounds but those grounds should also be such that everyone has an equal chance of satisfying them. Consider a society where prestige is attached to a warrior class whose duties require great physical strength and which has traditionally been constituted by the wealthy families even though recruitment to the class is open everyone. This, we might further suppose, is because the wealthy have a better diet than the malnourished poor who therefore cannot compete effectively.

There appears to be equality of opportunity here — the recruitment process is open to all and the ground for selection/exclusion seems quite appropriate. But of course it would be cynical to claim that this is genuine equality of opportunity. The causal connection between being poor and being undernourished and therefore being physically weak is too obvious to miss. Also, it is apparent that the notion of equality of opportunity can be made more effective by balancing the skewed distribution of wealth and resources.

It appears then that for equality of opportunity to be genuine, no section should be at a disadvantage especially if that disadvantage can be removed by some rearrangement or redistribution of resources when seeking access to the good being allocated. The problem however is that such clear causal connections as present in the imaginary example do not obtain in real world cases.

In any case, equality of opportunity includes not just the the equalisation of grounds that are applied, to reuse the imaginary example, to select the warriors but also the alterable circumstances under which those participants lived, that’s to say their wealth and diet, which have a bearing on those very grounds. The participants should be abstracted, in other words, from their unequal circumstances and this abstraction is involved in equality of opportunity.

Where should this [the abstraction of individuals from their circumstances] stop? Should it even stop at the boundaries of heredity? Suppose it were discovered that when all curable environmental disadvantages had been dealt with, there was a residual genetic difference in brain constitution, for instance, which was correlated with differences in desired types of ability; but that the brain constitution could in fact be changed by an operation. Suppose further that the wealthier classes could afford such an operation for their children, so that they always came out at the top of the educational system; would we then think that poorer children did not have equality of opportunity, because they had no opportunity to get rid of their genetic disadvantages?

... Our objections against the system suggested in this fantasy must, I think, be moral rather than metaphysical. They need not concern us here.

Various conflicts beset the idea of equality. It is not inappropriate, for instance, to feel that “a thoroughgoing emphasis on equality of opportunity must destroy a certain sense of common humanity which is itself an ideal of equality”. Also, the idea requires that both that certain goods which carry with them some status or prestige be distributed and also that, at the same time, we consider people independently of those very goods and the status that comes associated with them.

“When one is faced with the spectacle of the various elements of the idea of equality pulling in these different directions, there is a strong temptation, if one does not abandon the idea altogether, to abandon some of its elements. …It is an uncomfortable situation, but the discomfort is just that of genuine political thought. It is no greater with equality than it is with liberty, or any other noble and substantial political ideal.”



Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical by John Rawls — A Summary

John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14, no. 3 (1985): 223–51.

Section I explains “justice as fairness” as a political conception of justice applicable to the basic structure of society in a democratic society.

Section II asserts the intractability of disagreements over fundamental questions in any society and describes what a political conception of justice can do to adjudicate between these disagreements. It then indicates how justice as fairness could achieve that. It also indicates why justice as fairness is a political and not a metaphysical conception.

Section III states the overarching idea of justice as fairness as referring to a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. It then expands on the idea of fair terms (or system) of cooperation and the notion of persons.

Section IV explains through what process the fair terms of cooperation are determined and considers (possible) objections to that process.

Section V discusses the notion of a political conception of the person, i.e., as a free citizen.

Section VI clarifies why justice as fairness is a truly liberal view.

Section VII concludes with remarks on how social unity might be forthcoming through justice as fairness.


Justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. It is of course a moral conception but one that is worked out for a specific subject — the “basic structure” of a modern constitutional democracy. This basic structure consists of the society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and the way in which they fit together into a unified system of social cooperation.

Justice as fairness, it follows from the previous paragraph, is not intended as comprehensive moral conception that applies to all general subjects. To reiterate, justice as fairness applies only to the basic structure and not to other subjects the personal actions or philosophies of persons. This is unlike a comprehensive moral doctrine like utilitarianism which is understood to hold for all kinds of subjects.

Justice as fairness is intended for — see the second sentence of the first paragraph — democratic society. It draws upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation.


Any society is bound to face situations where there is controversy regarding fundamental questions which might appear, and prove, to be intractable. In such situations, a firm foundation of justice supplied by a political conception of justice, such as justice as fairness, might help sufficiently narrow down the divergence of opinion so that political cooperation is, despite differences of opinion, made possible.

There is no agreement in democratic thought about how the values of liberty and equality can best be secured or distributed through the basic structure of the society. The disagreement may be understood, broadly and crudely, as a conflict between two traditions, one stressing individual freedoms and the other, public values.[1] Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these two traditions by proposing two principles of justice which regulate how the basic structure should realise the values of liberty and equality. These principles are:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Justice as fairness also specifies a point of view from which these principles are advanced as more appropriate to free and equal democratic citizens than other principles of justice.

How might the disagreement alluded to in the last paragraph be settled? It might not be possible to do so, and indeed, as pointed out earlier, the most that could be done could be to narrow the differences.

A political conception of justice should be in accordance with our “settled convictions”[2] as well as the “shared fund of implicitly recognised basic ideas and principles expressed by the public culture”. The public culture however is the source and arena of the disagreement. A political conception of justice then has to organise the basic ideas and principles such that they are seen to fit together properly. It could even go further and supply an overarching (more fundamental) idea with which to tie together these basic/familiar/intuitive ideas and principles. This can be done if the conception provides a reasonable way of shaping the underlying bases of agreement in the public culture into a coherent view.

If justice as fairness achieves these goals, it will provide a reasonable public standpoint from which citizens might judge the justness of the social institutions using principles supplied by the conception. Also, in this conception, the manner of judging and justifying institutions are not based on the logical validity or even soundness of arguments but instead on arguments which are derived from premises which are recognised as acceptable through a prior consensus. It is for this reason that the aim as well as the content of justice as fairness is not metaphysical but political. It is not a conception that pretends to be true metaphysically but one that serves as a basis for political agreement for resolving fundamental questions by free and equal persons.

Justice as fairness avoids disputed philosophical, moral, and religious questions simply because there is no way of resolving them politically. It also avoids metaphysical notions about the true nature of the self in conceptualising the idea of free and equal persons. By avoiding these irresolvable issues whose inclusion would make any political conception useless, justice as fairness hopes to moderate between differing political views.


The overarching intuitive idea behind justice as fairness is the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.

Cooperation as understood in justice as fairness is marked by three features:

  1. It refers to activity based on publicly recognised and accepted rules and procedures, and not to merely socially coordinated activity brought about by a higher authority but.
  2. It involves fair terms of cooperation meaning not only that the terms of cooperation should be ones that each person may reasonably accept provides others do but also that they specify reciprocity or mutuality.[3]
  3. It involves the idea that the participants are seeking to achieve their rational advantage or good.

The person as understood in justice as fairness is a person who can cooperatively participate in social life. That person is a citizen.[4] These participants are free and equal. That they are free is connected with their capacity for moral thought and for reason which enable independent judgment. That they are equal is connected to them having the aforesaid capacity to the requisite degree so as to ensure their full cooperation in society.

And in being fully cooperative participants, they have the capacities (“moral powers”) for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good. Having a sense of justice simply means they find it proper to adhere to the political/public conception of justice, here justice as fairness. Having a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and to rationally pursue one’s conception of rational advantage. In addition to these two moral powers, participants have at a given time a particular conception of the good which they try to achieve which they can pursue. This conception of the participants as having the two moral powers and therefore free and equal is a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.

“...[T]he fundamental question of political justice [is this]: ... what is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. It is this question that has been the focus of the liberal critique of aristocracy, of the socialist critique of liberal constitutional democracy, and of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at the present time over the claims of private property and the legitimacy (in contrast to the effectiveness) of social policies associated with the so-called welfare state.”


How are the fair terms of social cooperation to be determined? Through a contract by free and equal participants. However, this contract must be entered into in the appropriate condition, i.e., they must be situated fairly or symmetrically such that their decisions are not distorted by particular features of social institutions or indeed their own particular circumstances. This condition as achieved via the “veil of ignorance” which prescribes an “original position” where the participants are sheltered from the influence of contingent advantages.

But this original position is only a device of representation and does not occur in actual societies. This renders the contract nonhistorical and hypothetical. What significance can such a contract have? The significance lies in the features of the original position itself. Without those very features — the idea that the participants are symmetrically situated and that their contingent social circumstances are unknown to them — no contract can be truly fair.

As a device of representation the idea of the original position serves as a means of public reflection and self-clarification. We can use it to help us work out what we now think, once we are able to take a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires when society is conceived as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal persons over time from one generation to the next. The original position serves as a unifying idea by which our considered convictions at all levels of generality are brought to bear on one another so as to achieve greater mutual agreement and self-understanding.

However, the original position behind the veil of ignorance, even if it appears abstract, must not be misunderstood to presuppose, for example, some metaphysical notion of the person.[5]


What is entailed in conceptualising a political notion of the person, i.e., as a free citizen?

First, citizens are free in that they conceive themselves and others as having the capacity to have a conception of the good. This also means that they are capable of revising the conception on rational grounds and that their identity as free persons in the political/public sense is not tied to any particular conception of the good.[6] However, their nonpublic identity — their personal devotions and loyalties, their religious or philosophical convictions —could be very different from that expressed by their political identity.

Second, citizens regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. Claims founded on duties and obligations which are based on the moral doctrines and conceptions of the good that they uphold are also considered as self-originating. To say that citizens are free in this way is to say that in democratic societies they actually think of themselves in this way. The importance of this aspect of their being free is to state that in so far as the claims do not derive from duties and obligations, that is in so far as the claims are not self-originating, they have no weight.[7]

Third, citizens are capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their claims are assessed. Briefly stated, this means that citizens are capable of adjusting or restricting their claims so that they can be pursued through mean which can reasonably be available to all. The weight of the claims in other words is not determined by the pyschological intensity of the desires but why considerations of cooperation and reciprocity.


Justice as fairness is a liberal view. In a democratic society, there will surely be incommensurable conceptions of the good. This fact, which is a given, is why the person is conceptualised as and restricted to a political notion, i.e., as citizens. Persons are free to be committed to comprehensive doctrines or ideals, whether liberal or otherwise, in non-political parts of their lives as long as these doctrines are not introduced into political discussion. This point is crucial because an insistence on liberal ideals would make the conception incompatible with other conceptions of the good turning liberalism itself into a dogmatic doctrine.

In any just democratic society, conceptions of the good apart from liberalism are likely to persist and it is this variety that justice as fairness tries to account for by identifying areas of “overlapping consensus”, i.e., intuitive ideas shared by diverse conceptions of the good. This consensus is the most that can be achieved.

But isn’t justice as fairness merely a modus vivendi that allows groups to pursue their own good subject to certain restraints? First, justice as fairness is a moral conception even if not a comprehensive one that stresses the virtues of cooperation. It is not merely a modus vivendi. Second, the principles of justice are accepted by the diverse conceptions of the good or as integral to them and not merely as convenient means apart from their moral doctrines.


Most political conceptions of justice do not allow a plurality of conceptions of the good. Examples of such conceptions include those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition and classical utilitarianism. By contrast, liberalism does allow for a plurality of competing or even incommensurable conceptions of the good. It assumes that a public agreement on one conception of the good is not possible.

How can social unity be secured if this is the case? Justice as fairness understands social unity as founded not on a singular conception of the good but on the public acceptance of a conception of justice as regulating the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is independent from and prior to the concept of goodness in that the principles of justice specify the acceptable conceptions of the good.

End Notes

[1] The first can be identified with John Locke (what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the moderns”) and the latter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or the “freedom of the ancients”).

[2] These might include “the belief in religious toleration and the rejection of slavery”.

[3] For more on this point, see John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

[4] ‘Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. We add the phrase “over a complete life” because a society is viewed as a more or less complete and self-sufficient scheme of cooperation, making room within itself for all the necessities and activities of life, from birth until death.’

[5] When, we simulate being in this position,  [behind the veil of ignorance,] our reasoning no more commits us to a metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than our playing a game like Monopoly commits us to thinking that we are landlords engaged in a desperate rivalry, winner take all.

[6] For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before. There is no loss of what we may call their public identity, their identity as a matter of basic law.

[7] “Laws that prohibit the abuse and maltreatment of slaves are not founded on claims made by slaves on their own behalf, but on claims originating either from slaveholders, or from the general interests of society (which does not include the interests of slaves).”

Another importance of this aspect is that it clearly identifies that it as peculiar to a particular conception of justice. The example about slaves just given flows from a political conception of justice where certain groups slaves are not viewed as self-originating sources of claims.