There have been a lot of political talk on "disparity" and "equality" lately in US. The underlying assumption often is that equality is necessarily good, and that most people would benefit from the reduction of disparity.

However, it is well known that enforcing equality usually leads to the reduction of the quality of life for the majority of people. More often than not the equal wage in the equalized society is much less than the median wage in a mildly unequal society. There have been enough historical examples of that.

And yet, even confronted with readily available historical evidence of the side effects of equalization, most proponents would still prefer equalized society. That raises a question: what is the underlying motivation of the desire for equality? Is it derived from the desire for the better life, despite the evidence to the contrary, or is it derived from envy, the desire that the Joneses wouldn't have more?


I'd like to make a clarification, prompted by the answers by @virmaior and @Niel de Beaudrap. This is to do whether equality has a value in itself, isolated from other considerations.

Imagine the society of 10 people, 4 of them have $10 each, 3 of them have $20 each, 2 of them have $40 each, and 1 has $120. Suppose they voted for the "equality law": everybody should have the same amount of money, but executed it by making those who have more than $10 burn the excess amount rather than distributing all the cash equally. From the point of view of equality alone the society has progressed: now everyone has $10 and GINI is a perfect line. Nobody benefited financially, in fact 60% majority lost.

However, there could be a certain emotional "benefit" in the above scenario for the poor 40%, and perhaps for the "lower middle class" 30% (who actually lost half of their savings): there are no more "rich" people whom the poor ones perceive as looking down at them. No more wealthy ones to attract the females desired by the poor, etc. The desire for such emotional benefit that comes with lowering the rich ones to one's own status has a word in English language, and the word is "envy".

If you think that redistribution of wealth would be more like combining all the wealth into a single pot and dividing it equally then think again. It is always easier to raze a building that to build one. If a law would pass that all buildings in a town must be of the same height that would result in removal of upper floors of taller buildings, not in mounting more floors on top of smaller buildings. In fact, the tallest building may get completely demolished.

There have been a few examples in History where an attempt of equalization resulted in the destruction and/or lowering of the upper classes with no financial benefits to the lower ones. Translating the above example to the realities of, say, Communist Russia would be "execute the top 10%, send the next 20% to Gulag, and reduce everybody else's wealth to $8". That is, even the "poor" ones loose financially (although relatively mildly). The only benefit Russians ever had was the fulfillment of their yearning for "social justice", which was driven mostly by envy.

"Equality of opportunity" is usually achieved in a similar way, by reduction of excessive opportunity rather than any improvement. If the law would pass in the USA that all public schools must provide the same educational experience, and private schools would be eliminated, that would result in all schools being equally bad, thus providing all kids with the same (lack of) opportunity. Things wouldn't improve anywhere, but the "equality of opportunity" would be achieved.

  • May I request that downvoters would verbalize their objections? This is a philosophy forum; one should be able to express disagreement more eloquently than "I don't like it."
    – Michael
    Feb 4, 2014 at 23:19
  • I'm not sure why someone downvoted this question considering much worse questions are not downvoted...
    – virmaior
    Feb 5, 2014 at 1:56

5 Answers 5


Is "equality" an virtue in itself or a derivative of envy?

What is the underlying motivation of the desire for equality?

Envy is most likely part of the answer. Helmut Schoeck argued that envy is not often discussed, but has been observed/studied by thinkers in almost every society [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmut_Schoeck].

In addition to your "burn the excess" example, there are other thought experiments which illustrate envy. For example, Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, tried to argue that the difference principle (inequality is permitted in society iff it improves the lot of the worst-off) is not motivated by envy. He argued that the principle arises from an unbiased construction of self-interested agents in an original position. Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, presented an alternative theory of just distribution which, he argued, should also appeal to these agents, provided that they were not motivated by envy.


Equality, as viramolar indicates in his answer, is a facet of justice, which basically is a question of knowing what range of actions one is allowed to take, and having that range of actions not be so restrictive as to prevent meaningful or beneficial choices.

"Equality" in economic terms in particular tends to address equality of economic opportunity. Opportunity, however, is a tricky thing to make precisely equal, and is tied in with all manners of sociological conditions. Statistically, African Americans have less opportunity than caucasians, and for similar reasons Gen-X workers have less opportunity than Baby Boomers: in each case the more senior positions have been disproportionately filled by the latter groups, who — due to social and, in some cases, prejudicial reasons — may not consider applicants from the former class as readily, for advancement.

It is not really possible to completely equalise opportunity: whether or not the wage-lowering effect you describe actually occurs, it requires a level of vigilance which would completely stagnate economic activity — just as an obsession with perfect justice and the complete abolition of crime tends to lead to police states. But as in law enforcement, perfection is not necessary. All that is required is for economic differences to be small enough.

What "small enough" means in practise will depend on the values of the society, and will typically not be clearly defined, but only identifiable by its absence (e.g. if unemployment is high and there are very rich people paying essentially no tax to support the society which supports their lifestyle).

  • I just added some clarifications to the question.
    – Michael
    Feb 5, 2014 at 16:32

I think what you are fundamentally running up against is "what is the definition of justice?" because you are asking whether or not we should try to achieve equality as a goal in our morality. There are two discussions that come to mind for me.

First, in Plato's Republic, there's the discussion of justice and whether justice for the society is bigger than justice for the individual (BK II). The relevance is that for Plato a big question is what is justice and how to define. On the majority reading, the answer given by the text is that justice is a well-ordered society. But there's also a minority reading that questions whether Plato is saying justice for more people is better (and that the small village offered in BK I is superior to the Republic offered in the rest of the text).

Second, Mill spends a good portion of Utilitarianism arguing about the nature of justice and trying to find a way to maximize. For him, justice is happiness maximization with harm minimization. But he also argues that this is the real content of everyone else's ideas about justice. As with Plato, Mill seems to want to say this is the most happiness for the most people. But again, the question is why?

Regarding Plato's account, Aristotle is critical of one feature that might matter -- which is that Plato's account eliminates private relationships and imagines care for children will still happen. At one point in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that this is nonsense because we care most for that which is our own. In a sense, Aristotle is the first economist because he recognizes that we act for our own benefit and profit and would not do so if it did not exist.

There are a number of reasons why people want equality in terms of goods. I would suspect some of it stems from equality in terms of rights. Here, the issue is that if rights are rights to do specific things, then poor people have less rights than rich people. Of course, we are not obligated to accept this definition of rights. A second reason can be that we believe slavery is wrong. For some people, they believe one person's profit is at the expense / enslavement of others, so they will maintain that the government should make things just again by redistributing (obviously this is a hackneyed presentation and believers in equality in terms of wealth will have more precise accounts of how the current arrangement is leading to exploitative growth).

  • 1
    Your first paragraph seems to be missing the last half of a sentence. Feb 5, 2014 at 14:00
  • @NieldeBeaudrap I've amended it as best as I can remember from 11 hours ago's thinking. Hard to do when I'm just a time worm
    – virmaior
    Feb 5, 2014 at 14:14

As I see no real way to answer this directly, I just post something that is related.

In his original position John Rawls proposes that envy is no feature of the parties and comes to the conclusion that they would pick his two principles, that allow inequalities only if the least-well-off benefit from it.

So Rawls thinks that principles of equality are picked even when, or because, envy is excluded in the reasoning.


Equality can be interpreted as a natural boundary which separates inequality into two sides. There is the side where people have less than the average, and the side where people have more than the average. If complete equality was instated then everyone would have only the average.

On the side of the equality boundary where people have less, equality tends to appear more as a good thing that will improve their standing. From this side it is more common that equality is derived from envy.

On the other side of the equality boundary where people have more, equality appears more as a bad thing that would decrease their standing. So if they are to vote for equality from this side then the concept of equality acts more as a virtue in itself.

Of course it is possible for individuals from either side to exercise equality as a virtue or a derivative of envy, although it is less common. Someone with less may be altruistic and desires equality solely for others with less and not so much for oneself. Likewise someone with more may desire equality in fear of ever ending up with less, or because of envy for those with even more than them. In this case they are exercising equality as a derivative of envy. In their case also not wanting equality could be a derivative of envy which by complement would mark equality now as a virtue.

In regard to most proponents still preferring equality despite negative consequences shown by history; recall that the majority of people have less than average while a small few have much more than average. This skews the overall position of equality. Now from a more neutral standpoint where denizens of both sides can easily agree equality marks a sense of relaxation for everyone, a potential dismissal of the notions of more and less, and this can be appealing to not have to worry about achieving more or losing to have less. The negative side effects occur because the envy and virtue aspects of equality still exist post equalization.

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