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Equality of What?

Matthew Jennings, studying Philosophy at Jesus College, Cambridge


In political discussions we often appeal to the value of equality. For example, in 2010, LGBTQ+ activists successfully campaigned for the legalisation of gay marriage – their main argument being that legalising gay marriage would lead to equality. However, if we do accept that equality is an appealing goal, then an interesting philosophical question arises: equality of what? What exactly should we be equalising?

To give some context to this discussion, the debate over ‘equality of what’ was extremely popular within political philosophy during the 1980s and 1990s. During the early years of the debate, two views were popular: equality of welfare and equality of resources.

Equality of welfare occurs when all individuals in a group experience the same level of welfare (think of welfare as happiness), whereas equality of resources occurs when all individuals in a group have the same number of resources (say we all have the same level of income).

Dworkin (1981) famously argued for equality of resources, and he did so by arguing against equality of welfare. Dworkin attacks equality of welfare by pointing out that different people have different tastes. Some individuals will have ‘expensive tastes’, while others will have ‘modest tastes’. Now say that the welfare level that every individual should have is 10. We will need to give the person with expensive tastes more resources, such as money, to achieve that 10 compared to the resources we would need to give to individuals with modest tastes. Yet, this seems profoundly unequal.

To illustrate Dworkin’s point, I think an example would be helpful. Consider someone who really likes caviar, and another person who just enjoys bread. In order to achieve the same level of welfare between these two people, we need to give the first more money, as caviar costs more than bread. Yet this doesn’t seem very fair. Therefore, Dworkin argues, we ought to equalise resources instead.

Dworkin’s ‘expensive taste objection’ devastated the defenders of equality of welfare, but some weren’t entirely convinced. Both Cohen (1989) and Arneson (1989) suggest that while Dworkin’s objection shows that equality of welfare is unconvincing, this doesn’t mean that one should give up on welfare-based equality theories. Instead, they argue, Dworkin’s objection motivates a shift from equality of welfare to equal opportunity for welfare.

Equal opportunity for welfare claims we should distribute our resources so that individuals ‘face an array of options that is equivalent to every other person’s in terms of the prospects for preference satisfaction it offers’ (Arneson 1989). For example, according to equal opportunity for welfare, everyone ought to be educated, as education opens opportunities for people to experience high levels of welfare.

Cohen and Arenson argue that their theory can overcome the expensive taste objection, as it was that individual’s choice to develop their expensive taste for caviar. They had the opportunity to achieve more welfare by developing more modest tastes, but they opted for the expensive taste. Therefore, it is fine that they experience less welfare: that’s what they chose after all!

Theories like equal opportunity of welfare reflect a general trend in philosophy during the 1980s and 1990s towards luck egalitarianism. Luck egalitarianism claims that all brute luck – luck you experience due to factors out of your control – should be eliminated. Therefore, inequalities should only be the product of an individual’s choices. This idea seems pretty convincing, as it seems only fair that the wealth and job you receive is due to your hard work.

However, as is the case with most political philosophy, we are far away from the ideal: we do not live in a society in which people’s positions are allocated according to their hard work. To take one example, according to the government, ‘only 18% of senior civil servants are from working-class or low socio-economic backgrounds, while that figure is 43% among the most junior grades.’

Therefore, from asking a seemingly mundane question – ‘equality of what?’ – we have come to a pretty radical political conclusion: massive changes need to occur in society if we are to achieve the goal of equality. And I hope that readers of this article will be part of that change.


  1. Arneson, Richard (1989), Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare. Philosophical Studies.

  2. Cohen, Gerald Allan (1989), On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice. Ethics.

  3. Dworkin, R (1981), What is Equality? Philosophy & Public Affairs.

  4. Government statistic on civil servants:,among%20the%20most%20junior%20grades.

Further Reading:

  1. Wolff, Jonathan (2007), Equality: The Recent History of an Idea. Journal of Moral Philosophy.

  2. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Equality:


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