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The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy

Peter Lamb


Things that are not identical are never absolutely equal. Nonetheless, descriptions of the human condition often emphasize fundamental similarities, or equivalences, between individuals. The seventeenth-century thinker Thomas Hobbes, for example, used the term ‘equality’ to refer in Leviathan to similarity in the abilities of men, all things considered, to survive. Similarities such as these have been taken to have normative import, or to suggest ideals of equality.

Ideals of formal equality, typically invoked to condemn legal privileges or discrimination on grounds of factors such as class, colour or sex, require that people are treated alike unless there are good reasons for treating them otherwise. Ideals of substantive equality, on the other hand, require that people are treated in such ways as to achieve equality among them according to some specific independent metric (of wealth, or of opportunity, for example).

John Locke's seventeenth-century political philosophy helps demonstrate that formal equality and substantial inequalities can sometimes overlap. In Two Treatises of Government, Locke claimed that God created all men with equal rights to life, liberty and estates (property), but that equal property rights could be enjoyed unequally. Significant inequality in the enjoyment of such rights would be justified if some individuals had mixed the labour of their employees with natural resources, and the employees had agreed to relinquish the fruits of labour for rewards. Also in the seventeenth century formal equality, as absence of privilege, featured in the ideas of the Levellers’ thinker John Lilburne. For the Diggers, meanwhile, Gerrard Winstanley argued for more substantial equality. Judging that unequal power derived from wealth results in oppression, Winstanley argued that equality means equality of goods, or equal access to the use of the earth and its fruits. No longer forced to surrender the products of their work in return for a meagre wage, labourers would thus no longer be oppressed.

In the late eighteenth century Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women and men should have equal rights in fields such as education, politics and the law. However, she advocated neither social equality nor equal opportunities to benefit from rights. In the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill offered a classic argument for equality of opportunity in Principles of Political Economy. Favouring limited inheritance taxation, he influenced many liberals. Mill's argument in The Subjection of Women for ‘perfect equality’ (p. 471) between the sexes was also, essentially, an argument for equality of opportunity. The idea of equality of opportunity has some associations with the idea of formal equality. Mill and his fellow liberals did not call for ‘stringent’ equality of opportunity, which shades into equality of outcome or substantial equality. In education, for example, while all children should have access to a decent education, the government should not have complete control over the education of the people. He insisted that people should not be required to send their children to government-controlled schools.

In the early to mid twentieth century the socialist Harold Laski argued against interpretations of equality of opportunity so stringent as to imply identity of equal chance. He suggested in A Grammar of Politics that this would require the abolition of the modern family. A more realistic goal would be to lay adequate opportunities open to all. By this he meant that every child should have the opportunity to develop their faculties to the full; the talents of those who have special capacities that could benefit social welfare should not be wasted.

For Laski, equality was necessary for general and substantial freedom: such freedom required opposition to privilege, the provision of economic measures to ensure adequate opportunity, provision for primary needs before allowing inequalities, and the allowance of only those inequalities necessary for society. His socialist contemporary R. H. Tawney argued in Equality that abolition of privilege was necessary but inadequate for social well-being. Equality of opportunity, unless stretched to extreme measures, meant inequality of outcome. The well-being of society could only be increased by enabling everybody to make the best of their powers. This could be achieved if industry, public health and education were planned to reduce social inequalities and strengthen the common humanity that united people.

In the 1960s Bernard Williams argued that language imposes strong restraints on the justification of discrimination, but the pursuit of extreme equality of opportunity can stand in tension with the pursuit of formal equality. For example, widespread state intervention will mean treating equals unequally unless wealth is deemed to justify unequal treatment. Williams balanced formal equality and equality of opportunity, arguing that imaginative reform might help redress the advantages of wealth. However, he advised caution, stressing that extreme equality of opportunity, disallowing any unequal life-chances, might require changing the brain constitution to deal with residual genetic differences.


Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651; repr. with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, Cambridge, 1996).Find this resource:

    Laski, Harold J., A Grammar of Politics (1925; 2nd edn, 1930; 3rd edn, 1934; 4th edn with an important new introductory chapter, 1938).Find this resource:

      Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government (1689; repr. with an Introduction by Peter Laslett, Cambridge, 1960 and 1998).Find this resource:

        Mill, John Stuart, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (1848; 2nd rev. edn, 1849; 3rd rev. edn, 1852; 4th rev. edn, 1857; 5th rev. edn, 1862; 6th rev. edn, 1865; People's edn, 1865 with some translations and omissions).Find this resource:

          ——, The Subjection of Women (1869; repr. in On Liberty and Other Writings, with an Introduction by John Gray, Oxford, 1991).Find this resource:

            Phillips, Anne, Which Equalities Matter? (Cambridge, 1999).Find this resource:

              Rees, John, Equality (1971).Find this resource:

                Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory (1937).Find this resource:

                  Tawney, R. H., Equality (1931; 2nd rev. edn, 1931; 3rd substantially revised edn, 1938; 4th edn, rev. and with a new chapter, 1952; repr. with an Introduction by Richard M. Titmuss, 1964).Find this resource:

                    Williams, Bernard, ‘The Idea of Equality’, in Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society: Second Series (Oxford, 1962).Find this resource:

                      Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792; repr. with an Introduction by Miriam Brody, Harmondsworth, 1992).Find this resource:

                        Peter Lamb

                        See also Education, Philosophy of; Feminism; Social Sciences; Socialism