Some philosophies, such as Egalitarianism, highly value equality and fairness. My question is, why? What is so great about equality and fairness?

For example, the Soviet Union was much more equal than it was under the Czars (not perfectly equal, but more equal). The upper class was very small, and there the lower and middle classes where less split. And it was terrible!

Imagine that we have two scenarios. In the first, two people each of have one unit of utility (we could give amount of food or free time or whatever as utility.) In the second, one person has two units, and the other one hundred. Although the first distribution is many orders of magnitude equaller, I would prefer to be the person with two units of utility in the second scenario then one in the first. Even if the second scenario arose in an unfair way, it would still be better.

For example, even though the 1% are much richer than me, I still have a better standard of living than Kings of the past. The 1% being rich doesn't really harm me, fair or not.

So why do we value equality and fairness so highly? What philosophical defense can be given for them?

  • 1
    Rawl's arguments about a veil of ignorance seem relevant here, at least to gain some intuition about the spirit behind such arguments -- if you got to organize a political economy, but didn't know which social strata you'd be born into, it'd be in your interest for there to be as much equality as possible
    – Joseph Weissman
    Mar 29, 2016 at 20:37
  • @JosephWeissman Why? With veil of ignorance, I would much prefer society 1 to society 2 in the example above. Won't I be trying to maximize the average utility, not the minimum? Mar 29, 2016 at 21:10
  • Utility fails as a model because it lacks a dynamics. In the scenario with one hundred 'ones', none of them need not fear violence on a scale that will send more than a couple of them down to zero. In the scenario with forty-nine 'twos' and one 'hundred', the odds are, someone will threaten the hundred, and he will spend his resources reducing most of the other forty-eight into zeroes so they stop being a threat. There is no consistent way to balance stable discomfort with fear of disaster. You can introduce 'meta-utilities' but then it becomes a matter of personalities...
    – user9166
    Mar 29, 2016 at 22:00
  • @PyRulez Actually, utility curves never sum correctly, so it is only safe to maximize minima -- the average is not well-defined.
    – user9166
    Mar 29, 2016 at 22:11
  • @jobermark why do you want to maximize the minima? Mar 30, 2016 at 0:13

3 Answers 3


First of all, there are many forms of equality: Racial equality, gender equality, equal opportunity, economic equality, etc...you seem to be mostly concerned with economic equality.

Second, based on your wording, you are conflating equality and fairness, which are not the same. In fact many would argue that fairness and equality can be contradictory: Is it fair that all employees get the same pay, even though some work harder than others?

Your utility example (better form me to have 2 utility points even if someone else has a 100, than for all of us to each have 1 utility point) echoes John Rawls difference principle.

John proposes the theory of Justice as Fairness, discussed in his book "A Theory of Justice". Here, I will quote the SEP article on John Rawls:

These guiding ideas of justice as fairness are expressed in its two principles of justice:

  • First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

  • Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle). (JF, 42–43)

As you can see, John Rawls seems to agree with you that inequality is acceptable, as long as it works to the advantage of everybody, i.e. everyone ends better off in the arrangement (everyone gets more utility points than they would have in an equal distributions, but some more than others).

There are also arguments for economic equality. Settings aside purely moral arguments for economic equality, one can provide the following pragmatic reasons for economic equality, which fall under the heading off everyone stands to benefit more from situations with greater equality, even the very rich (sorry for lack of sources, I will have to dig them up later):

  • Economic arguments: too much inequality will lead to economic crises, as the rich produce all sorts of goods and services but the poor can't afford to buy these products.
  • Social arguments: too much inequality leads to social instability. A rich person might benefit from making sure that none his neighbors are poor, so that none of them will be tempted to steal from him. Is is not a coincidence that egalitarian societies like the Scandinavian countries or Japan also tend to have some of the lowest crime rates in the world.
  • Game theoretical arguments: Situations like the prisoner's dilemma show that on average, people have a higher probability of obtaining a positive outcome if they collaborate together, than if they work against each other.
  • 1
    Adding one economic argument for inequality not getting too high: The consumption rate of income are falling disproportionately high, therefore the economic wealth and the volume of trade and production would be much higher if relatively poor people would participate in the wealth the relatively rich one do not even care having anymore. Well, in theory. ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 30, 2016 at 8:46
  • Would you agree that these claims are implicit in your answer? Equality, as an end in itself, is not used in Rawls's work; so it is not "valued highly" by him. In practice, high levels of inequality are (tend to be) symptomatic of systematic unfairness.
    – Dave
    Mar 30, 2016 at 12:31
  • @Dave notice in my answer is in two parts: 1st about fairness and Rawls, 2nd about equality. Apr 1, 2016 at 23:44

The egalitarian intuition, put in general terms by GA Cohen is that

there is something that justice requires people to have equal amounts of, no matter what, but to whatever extent is allowed by other values that compete with distributive justice

According to Allan Marx, egalitarians hold that equality should be valued for its own sake, or to promote other important goods: such as community, political democracy, personal liberty and self-respect.

In the choice that you've put before us is heavily biased against this intuition in that the 'pie' to be divided out is different in both scenarios, and are therefore incomparable; in the first scenario one is sharing out equally two units of utility equally, in the second a hundred and two.

A fair comparison would use the same 'pie' to divide out; the first scenario would have the first one sharing out one hundred units equally - so fifty each; and the second two units for one, and ninety-eight for the other.

Given this, what would you now chose?

Marx is considered popularly as an egalitarian, but in Woods considered opinion he opposes equality as he considers it as a vehicle for class oppression; he holds that it's a specifically political notion arising from the market states of early modern Europe; and whose most basic expression is procedural equality, that is equality before the law; but as Kant points out, and as actual circumstances bear out

is quite consistent with the greatest inequality in terms of quantity and degree of possessions

And to be contrasted with the abolition of classes, and distinguished from the equalisation of classes where labour and capital are harmonised.

Kant follows Rousseau in arguing that that the poor have a right that the wealthy should be taxed are arguments not based on considerations of equality but on their right to freedom and independence as their own master and not being coerced by the arbitrary will of another.

Marx agrees with this intuition.

  1. Successful people need not accumulate personal capital in the socialist society. Successful people manage public capital in the socialist society.

  2. All members of the ideal (communist) society, like your body, are struggling to minimize the consumption and maximize the production/consumption rate. All people (cells in your body) need to receive some minimum goods for survival. They won't work better if some will receive much more, astronomically more. They will only spend/waste more if they will receive more. For instance, public transport and vertical cities are a way more efficient than american suburbia lifestyle. Why should best workers destroy the optimal socialist collective household as a prize for their good work? This defeats the purpose of their good work. They build the ideal household during their daily duties and destroy it at their spare time. That is nonsense.

This is not Marx. These are mine ideas. I just put them here to you because, in contrast to Marx, they make sense. In the Marx time workers could work at the factory after some work in the field. He therefore believed that if people are egolitarian then they won't opress each other and will have happy life trying different jobs. It our days it is difficult to work as doctor for a copule of years, then switch to advanced math and continue as nanoelectronics architect, when you are fed up with purely abstract formulas.

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