Equality : Collaboration

Artist / Title
Michelle Rawlings / Pie Chart


Yehonatan Alsheh, Dani Filc, Naveh Frumer, and Itay Snir

Being a lexical enterprise, Political Concepts revolves around what is probably the quintessential philosophical question at least since Socrates: “What is X?” Socrates’ basic idea, much like that of the current lexicon, is that the everyday use of concepts is often problematic. The attempt to define what some X is, even when it does not reach a definite answer, often has important intellectual and political impact. It is thus interesting to note that when Socrates addresses the concept of equality in the course of the Phaedo, he does not bother to discuss its definition:

Consider, [Socrates] said, whether this is the case:

We say that there is something that is equal. I do not mean a stick equal to a stick or a stone to a stone, or anything of that kind, but something else beyond all these, the Equal itself [αὐτὸ τὸ ἴσον: auto to ison].

Shall we say that this exists or not?

Indeed we shall, by Zeus, said Simmias, most definitely.

And do we know what this is?—Certainly1

Thus, rather than adopting his usual strategy, asking his interlocutor what equality is in order to then undermine the latter’s taken-for-granted confidence, Socrates builds upon the premise that the concept is sufficiently familiar and clear so as to serve as a basis for the rest of his argument, regarding the Theory of Recollection.

We would like to suggest that Socrates’ recourse to equality when in need of an intuitive concept that requires no definition is not at all accidental. Contrary to Ronald Dworkin, who argues that “people who praise or disparage [equality] disagree about what it is they are praising or disparaging,” we shall argue that equality, “the Equal itself” as Socrates puts it, is a relatively simple concept that is easily grasped.2 This does not imply that there is no point in trying to define this concept, only that such definitions do not and cannot serve to re-conceptualize equality, nor to highlight contradictions in our intuitive understanding of it, so much as to provide a more technical, explicit account of those fairly common intuitions. To be clear, when it comes to the application of the concept of equality in the social and political domain, things are not at all trivial.

What we would like to suggest, however, is that one can distinguish between the concept of equality—the Socratic “Equal itself” in its more abstract, intuitive form—and the principle of equality—namely equality as an organizing normative principle of the social, political, or economic fields. It is our view that, although political thinking is fraught with controversies over equality, these have to do for the most part with the application of equality qua principle, rather than with the very meaning of the concept.

Underlying such controversies is a shared understanding regarding that basic meaning. To wit, a great deal of the major political texts dealing with equality in recent decades do not bother to offer a definition of it at all, quickly turning their attention to related questions, such as whether or not equality is intrinsically valuable, what the proper object of equality is (recourses, opportunities, capabilities), how equality can be attained, and what the legitimate means for doing so are.3

1. Plato, “Phaedo” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 64-65 (74a).

2. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 2.

3. For a defense of the internal value of equality see, for example, Thomas Nagel, “Equality” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 106-127. For a typical counter-argument see Derek Parfit, “Equality or Priority?” in The Ideal of Equality, ed. Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002), 81-125. For a defense of equality of resources see John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Erin Kelly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); for equality of welfare see Kai Nielsen, Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985); for equality of capabilities see Amartya Sen, “Equality of What?” in Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982); for equality of political power see Charles R. Beitz, Political Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). For a debate between a position that justifies state taxation as a means for minimizing equality versus one that delegitimizes any such intervention, compare Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) and Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974). For a typical example of an attempt to define equality see Felix E. Oppenheim, “Egalitarianism as a Descriptive Concept,” American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1970): 143-152.

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