How is egalitarianism (broadly, any idea about equality between humans) even possible?

I find it hard to chew as to how can egalitarianism be demonstrated to even exist in any, even simple sense. Most of one's observations display inequality (just observe and see). Thus egalitarianism seems like a social construct, but which by being a social construct is vague.

Even if egalitarianism could be broadly fallacious, then I wonder if there are even simple cases that exhibit egalitarianism. Or whether the concept itself is "useless" similarly to how "universality" is (since it nearly never exists as other than "an abstract ideal").

  • 1
    What does "observations that one does display" mean? Are you trying to say that egalitarianism is pragmatically self-defeating because people who profess it do not practice what they preach? In that case some examples of what you consider "displays of inegalitarity" might help.
    – Conifold
    Feb 28, 2019 at 20:59
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    I will try to come back and replace this comment with an answer if I have time, but I would point you 1) to Rousseau]'s distinction between natural and "moral" or social inequality and 2) to the various conceptions of social equality.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 28, 2019 at 21:00
  • @Conifold That's another thing that egalitarians seem to contradict egalitarianism in practice, but it's a related notion. I've clarified my text. In essence egalitarianism seems fallacious, because it seems unattainable in the real world. It fails in very simple tests, such as whether we are as hard-working or with similar physique. Thus, what's the way to "demonstrate" egalitarianism?
    – mavavilj
    Feb 28, 2019 at 22:09
  • Egalitarianism says, roughly, that people should be treated equally in their social status (or some other respect). It does not say that they are equal in their work effort or physique.
    – Conifold
    Feb 28, 2019 at 22:50
  • @Conifold I think their status is a result of their work effort or physique.Thus their status cannot be equal either.
    – mavavilj
    Feb 28, 2019 at 23:09

2 Answers 2


'Most of one's observations display inequality (just observe and see)'

Point taken against egalitarianism if you fix on descriptive characteristics and assume that egalitarianism supposes everyone to be alike in their wants and preferences or equally talented or such like. But this is to miss the egalitarian angle, which has a lot to do with unfairness. Egalitarianism, I'd add, does not hold that all inequalities are unfair.

A closer look at egalitarianism

To get egalitarianism clearly into view we need to draw some distinctions.

Egalitarians generally believe that it is bad for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. This is because, typically, if one person is worse off than another through no fault or choice of her own, the situation seems comparatively unfair, and, hence, the inequality will be objectionable.

Egalitarians are not committed to thinking that deserved inequalities are as bad as undeserved ones. In fact, I think that deserved inequalities, if there are any, are not bad at all. The reason for this is simple. Undeserved inequality is unfair, but deserved inequality is not. Thus, the egalitarian is not committed to the view that it is bad with respect to equality for parents or citizens to freely and rationally sacrifice for their descendants so that their descendants will be better off than they. Nor is the egalitarian committed to the view that it is bad with respect to equality for imprisoned criminals to be worse off than regular citizens, if she believes that the criminal could have been as well off as others but freely chose a life of crime. In such cases, the worse-off are so by their own free choice, and the way in which this is so makes it seem that the unequal outcomes are not unfair, and, hence, are not objectionable. These cases differ from those where the worse-off are so because they were unlucky enough to be born into poverty, or with severe handicaps, or with the “wrong” color skin in a racist society.

Opponents sometimes try to saddle egalitarians with the view that all inequalities are bad. This is a ludicrous position that no egalitarian accepts. Egalitarians needn’t object to the fact that there are more electrons than protons, or more roaches than whales. Nor need they object to inequalities of height or hair color, considered just by themselves. This may seem obvious, but it is connected to a significant point. Egalitarians aren’t simply concerned with how much inequality obtains in a situation; they are concerned with how bad a situation’s inequality is. While there may be more inequality in one situation than another, that needn’t be worse if the greater inequality is morally irrelevant, deserved, or of less normative significance than the lesser inequality. (Larry S. Temkin, 'Egalitarianism Defended', Ethics , Vol. 113, No. 4 (July 2003), pp. 764-782: 767.)


Summing up, I don't think that egalitarianism is really open to the 'observational' refutation you suggest. Its focus is on unfair inequalities, undeserved inequalities, that can be remedied.


Such was the assault on the feasability of Socrates's perfect society by Glaucon in Book V of Plato's Republic: in my interpretation, the pursuit of a perfect state is worthy even if only near-perfection is attainable.

Glaucon: But still I must say, Socrates, that if you are allowed to go on in this way you will entirely forget the other question which at the commencement of this discussion you thrust aside: --Is such an order of things possible, and how, if at all? For I am quite ready to acknowledge that the plan which you propose, if only feasible, would do all sorts of good to the State.

I will add, what you have omitted, that your citizens will be the bravest of warriors, and will never leave their ranks, for they will all know one another, and each will call the other father, brother, son; and if you suppose the women to join their armies, whether in the same rank or in the rear, either as a terror to the enemy, or as auxiliaries in case of need, I know that they will then be absolutely invincible; and there are many domestic advantages which might also be mentioned and which I also fully acknowledge: but, as I admit all these advantages and as many more as you please, if only this State of yours were to come into existence, we need say no more about them; assuming then the existence of the State, let us now turn to the question of possibility and ways and means --the rest may be left.

I have cut out some lines here for brevity but I highly recommend reading the entire work:

Socrates: Would a painter be any the worse because, after having delineated with consummate art an ideal of a perfectly beautiful man, he was unable to show that any such man could ever have existed?

Glaucon: He would be none the worse.

Socrates: Well, and were we not creating an ideal of a perfect State?

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: And is our theory a worse theory because we are unable to prove the possibility of a city being ordered in the manner described?

Glaucon: Surely not.

Socrates: That is the truth. But if, at your request, I am to try and show how and under what conditions the possibility is highest, I must ask you, having this in view, to repeat your former admissions.

Glaucon: What admissions?

Socrates: I want to know whether ideals are ever fully realised in language? Does not the word express more than the fact, and must not the actual, whatever a man may think, always, in the nature of things, fall short of the truth? What do you say?

Glaucon: I agree.

Socrates: Then you must not insist on my proving that the actual State will in every respect coincide with the ideal: if we are only able to discover how a city may be governed nearly as we proposed, you will admit that we have discovered the possibility which you demand; and will be contented. I am sure that I should be contented --will not you?

Glaucon: Yes, I will.

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