The Notion of (In)Equality

‘Equality’ (or ‘equal’) signifies a correspondence between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect but not all respects; that is, they are equal with regard to at least one specific feature and different with regard to other features. For this reason, equality needs to be distinguished from ‘similarity’—the concept of merely approximate correspondence—and from ‘identity’—the concept signifying that one and the same object corresponds to itself in all its features.

‘Equality’ can be used in the very same sense both to describe and to prescribe. In descriptive uses of equality, the standard common to both objects is itself descriptive, for example, when two people are said to be equal in bodily weight. A prescriptive use of equality occurs when a prescriptive standard is applied in the form of a rule or norm: that people ought to be equal before the law, for example. This is based on a certain comparison between two or more objects or persons to which the norm is applied, specifying how those falling under the norm are to be treated (Westen 1990, chap. 3). Sociological and economic analyses of (in)equality mainly pose the descriptive question of how inequalities can be specified and measured, and what we can discover about their causes and effects (cf. Berger and Schmidt 2004; Hurst 2016). In contrast, social and political philosophy is generally concerned with prescriptive questions: what kind of equality, if any, do we owe to whom, and when do we owe it? Such is the case in this article as well.

‘Equality’ and ‘equal’ are incomplete predicates that necessarily generate one question: equal in what respect? (Rae 1981, 132 ff.) Equality essentially consists of a tripartite relation between two (or several) objects or persons and one (or several) qualities. ‘Equality’ denotes the relation between the objects that are compared. Every comparison presumes a tertium comparationis, a concrete attribute defining the respect in which the equality applies; ‘equality’ thus refers to a common sharing of this comparison-determining attribute. This relevant comparative standard represents a ‘variable’ (or ‘index’) of the concept of equality that needs to be specified in each particular case (Westen 1990, 10). Differing conceptions of equality here emerge from one or another descriptive or prescriptive moral standard. Various different standards might be used to measure inequality, with the particular respect in which people are compared remaining constant [Temkin (1986) 1993]. The difference between a general concept and different specific conceptions (Rawls 1971, 21 ff.) of equality may explain why, according to various authors, producing ‘equality’ has no unified meaning, or is even devoid of meaning (Rae

1981, 127 ff., 132 ff.).

For this reason, it helps to think of the idea of equality or inequality, understood as an issue of social justice, not as a single principle but rather as a complex cluster of principles that form the basic core of today’s egalitarianism. Depending on which procedural principle one adopts, contrary conceptions may follow. Both equality and inequality are complex and multifaceted concepts (Temkin (1986) 1993, chap. 2). In any real historical context, it is clear that no single notion of equality can comprehend all others (Rae 1981, 132). Although many egalitarians concede that much of our discussion of the concept is vague and overly abstract, they also believe that implicit in that concept is a common underlying strain of important moral concerns (Williams 1973). In this sense, egalitarians tend to think of egalitarianism as a single coherent normative doctrine that nevertheless embraces a variety of principles, a point to which I will attend in the next section.

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