How Can We Create an Egalitarian World?

Egalitarians believe that all people are morally equal and thus entitled to some form of equal treatment. But what equality looks like and how it can be achieved remain essential questions in an ongoing debate within political philosophy. Professor Andres Moles of CEU’s Departments of Political Science and Philosophy, and Tom Parr of the University of Essex seek to end this debate in their paper “Distributions and Relations: A Hybrid Account,” which was recently published in Political Studies.

The current debate about egalitarianism among political philosophers pits two camps against each other. First are the distributive egalitarians who think all people should enjoy the same amount of a certain currency, whether that is resources, opportunities, happiness or another measure. Second are the social egalitarians (or relational egalitarians) who believe equality is established when relationships between people are absent of hierarchy, oppression or exploitation.

Moles and Parr don’t fall into either camp. They argue that, not only is this debate between distributive and social egalitarians an unhelpful way of framing and discussing equality, but it also delays tangible, real-world social and political progress.

“Claims about the nature or value of equality in this debate are far too conceptual. We want to recast the debate in terms of the reasons we have to distribute things equally or to establish certain kinds of relations between people,” explained Moles. “Some forms of discrimination are bad because they imply or create uneven social relations; others are bad because they deny people certain resources. Our hybrid view of egalitarianism helps examine and tackle practical issues of equality and inequality in a more complex way.”

This “hybrid” view of egalitarianism that the authors put forth appeals to the reasons behind egalitarian acts, thereby ditching the either/or argument among political philosophers to instead propose the necessity of looking at both the distributive and social factors needed to achieve equality.

“The paper defends two central ideas,” said Moles. “First, in a society of equals, people will be able to justify their resources and opportunities to everyone else, and that justification cannot come from a relational theory, it must come from a distributive account. Second, disadvantages in social standing cannot be compensated by offering resources and opportunities, which is not to say that resources and opportunities cannot be instrumental in raising people’s standing. Our conclusion is that both theories offer legitimate reasons and are not mutually reducible to one another.”

To illustrate the appeal of this hybrid view, Moles offered several examples where neither distributive nor social egalitarianism alone can accurately capture and address the complexity of inequality: “Consider integration and inequality in the United States. Minority communities in the US are more and more integrated into the larger society now than ever before—there are more black people in positions of power, more Latinos attending competitive universities, etc. But nevertheless, the gap in wealth distribution between white people and minorities in the US is massive. It’s good that social relations are more integrative, but wealth inequality is still a serious concern,” said Moles.

“Alternatively, look at equal opportunity employment. The often-stated reason behind providing equal opportunities to people is to distribute resources like goods and jobs. But equal opportunities also open the doors to certain kinds of relations. What is unjust about the different opportunities available to different people is not always about the inability access to a certain income or job, but how the available opportunities preclude some forms of social relations,” said Moles. “Imagine a society that’s fully segregated—people from this community have access to the same great jobs, income, longevity, etc., as those from the other community, but the two communities don’t mix. This is not equality. We believe that there are some forms of relationships that are unjust even if resources are distributed equally.”

Moles and Parr argue that the hybrid account of equality removes the bickering between sides over the concept of equality by focusing on why we value and desire equality in the first place. “This is how we move the debate foreword,” said Moles.