Political Science Egalitarianism
Carl Knight, Andreas Albertsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0155


Equality as a bare concept refers to two or more distinct things or people being the same in some dimension. Different forms of equality are distinguished by the dimension that is held to be the same. Within political theory, three main forms of equality can be distinguished: moral equality, political equality, and substantive equality. “Moral equality” refers to each individual having the same inherent dignity as a human being, and therefore being worthy of respect. “Political equality,” by contrast, refers to each individual having the same basic rights of involvement in political processes, e.g., by voting or running for office. Modern political theories generally accept that each individual has moral and political equality. The distinguishing feature of egalitarianism is its interpretation of this equal status as requiring substantive equality, i.e., that each individual be placed in the same social or economic conditions. Egalitarianism is an inherently normative view, and more specifically, a view about distributive justice—that is, about the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens. The account of these benefits and burdens varies from one egalitarian theory to another. For instance, some egalitarians believe that levels of benefit should be measured in terms of resources, others in terms of well-being, and still others in terms of basic capabilities. Egalitarians also disagree on whether benefits should be distributed equally or whether equality of substantive condition in some other sense (i.e., equal opportunity or equal social standing) might be sufficient. Accordingly, each egalitarian theory has its own account of equality. These theories as a whole contrast with non-egalitarian theories, such as right libertarianism or conservativism, which deny that people’s condition should be made equal in any substantive sense. In practical terms, egalitarianism is strongly associated with the political left, but different brands of egalitarianism are associated with different brands of left-wing politics, from traditional socialism or social democracy to a less distribution-focused politics of identity. This article provides an overview of egalitarianism, primarily focusing on its development in contemporary political theory. For left libertarianism, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Libertarianism.”

General Overviews

Hirose 2015 and Moss 2014 are up-to-date critical introductions to contemporary egalitarianism. White 2007 offers a broader account of equality, including both theoretical and applied topics. Holtug and Lippert-Rasmussen 2007 collects original essays from key contemporary writers on egalitarianism. Pojman and Westmoreland 1997 provides a selection of key historical and contemporary texts on equality. Wolff 2011 and Anderson 2012 cover both historical and contemporary debates, including that between luck egalitarians and relational egalitarians. Gosepath 2011 and Arneson 2013 provide overviews of equality and egalitarianism, respectively, arranged by subtopic. Kymlicka 2002 is an influential introduction to political philosophy with a particular focus on themes relating to equality.

  • Anderson, Elizabeth. “Equality.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Edited by David Estlund, 40–57. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Presents the ideal of relational egalitarianism and argues that it is more in tune with traditional egalitarian movements and the history of egalitarian thought than luck egalitarian approaches.

  • Arneson, Richard. “Egalitarianism.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013.

    A brief introduction to egalitarianism, covering the question of “equality of what?,” relational egalitarianism, the scope of egalitarianism, alternatives to egalitarianism, and moral equality.

  • Gosepath, Stefan. “Equality.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

    A brief introduction to the concept of equality and its various senses, with a particular focus on distributive equality.

  • Hirose, Iwao. Egalitarianism. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015.

    Covers major egalitarian theories such as Rawls’s justice as fairness and luck egalitarianism, the alternative prioritarian and sufficientarian theories, as well as applications to health and health care.

  • Holtug, Nils, and Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, eds. Egalitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A major collection of essays addressing a wide range of topics from the foundations of egalitarianism to the place of animals in theories of equality.

  • Kymlicka, Will. Contemporary Political Philosophy. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A seminal introduction to normative political theory, with a substantial chapter on liberal egalitarianism, and enlightening discussions of equality (e.g., in relation to utilitarianism, Marxism, and feminism) throughout.

  • Moss, Jeremy. Reassessing Egalitarianism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137385987

    This compact volume surveys key questions concerning egalitarianism, including the value of equality, the nature of equality, the role of responsibility within egalitarian theories, and whether equality should be extended globally.

  • Pojman, Louis P., and Robert Westmoreland, eds. Equality: Selected Readings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    A reference work with important readings on equality from historical figures, such as Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, and contemporary theorists, including John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

  • White, Stuart. Equality. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

    This is an introduction to the general topic of equality and includes discussions of political equality, equality of opportunity, and equal citizenship.

  • Wolff, Jonathan. “Equality.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. Edited by George Klosko, 611–623. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Traces the idea of equality from Hobbes to the present, with a focus on contemporary issues such as the “equality of what?” debate and the dispute between luck egalitarians and relational egalitarians.

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