Philosophy 219 - 11.4.4 Egalitarianism

Rawls’s theory of justice has much in common with egalitarian theories. The term egalitarianism refers to a broad family of views that gives primary place to equality. The root egal (from the French) means “equal.” Egalitarian theories assert that all individuals should enjoy equal status and moral worth and that any legitimate system of government should reflect this value. More specifically, egalitarian theories do not argue that all individuals should be treated exactly the same; rather, they insist that individuals are all deserving of rights, including civil, social, and political rights.

Some theorists argue that equality of opportunity for welfare, meaning equality of opportunity to obtain resources, is the most important type of equality. In addition to resources, equality of opportunity includes a consideration of how individuals have acquired certain advantages. For example, nepotism (giving opportunities based on familial connections) and biases based on personal traits such as gender or race interfere with an individual’s ability to compete for resources. Any society that seeks a truly level playing field needs to contend with these issues.

One way to examine equality is to look at what individuals are able to do. The Indian economist Amartya Sen popularized a framework now known as the capability approach, which emphasizes the importance of providing resources to match individual need. This approach creates opportunities for each person to pursue what they need to live a flourishing life. An example of the capability approach is basic income, in which a city, state, or country might combat poverty by awarding everyone below a certain income level $1,000 per month.

A photograph shows Amartya Kumar Sen standing with India's 13th prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Figure 11.8 Amartya Sen, an Indian philosopher and economist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize, with India’s 13th prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in 2008. (credit: “The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh with Prof. Amartya Sen at a Meeting with the Members of Nalanda Mentor Group, in New Delhi on August 13, 2008” by Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons, GODL-India)

The capability approach advocates “treating each person as an end” and “focus[ing] on choice and freedom rather than achievements” (Robeyns and Byskov 2021). According to American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), the capability approach would improve both justice outcomes and quality of life. She argues that a certain number of resources are necessary to enjoy a basic set of positive capabilities that all humans possess. Thus, each individual should be provided with those resources so that their life is not “so impoverished that it is not worthy of the dignity of a human being” (Nussbaum 2000, 72). What is beneficial about the capability approach is that it recognizes and respects the diverse needs of individuals based on different experiences and circumstances.

Listen to philosopher Martha Nussbaum discuss how the capabilities approach aids in creating a positive quality of life.


Martha Nussbaum

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax