Egalitarianism (from French égal, meaning 'equal'), or equalitarianism, is a school of thought within political philosophy that prioritizes equality for all people. Egalitarian doctrines are generally characterized by the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term has two distinct definitions in modern English, namely either as a political doctrine that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social and civil rights, or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people, economic egalitarianism, or the decentralization of power. Some sources define egalitarianism as the point of view that equality reflects the natural state of humanity.
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Some specifically focused egalitarian concerns include communism, legal egalitarianism, luck egalitarianism, political egalitarianism, gender egalitarianism, racial equality, equality of outcome and Christian egalitarianism. Common forms of egalitarianism include political and philosophical.
One argument is that liberalism provides democratic societies with the means to carry out civic reform by providing a framework for developing public policy and providing the right conditions for individuals to achieve civil rights.
Equality of person
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the United States Constitution use only the term person in operative language involving fundamental rights and responsibilities, except for (a) a reference to men in the English Bill of Rights regarding men on trial for treason; and (b) a rule of proportional Congressional representation in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
As the rest of the Constitution, in its operative language the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution uses the term person, stating that "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws".
Equality of men and women in rights and responsibilities
An example of this form is the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 which provides that "men and women shall be equal in their rights and duties".
The motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" was used during the French Revolution and is still used as an official motto of the French government. The 1789 Rights of Man and of the Citizen French Constitution is framed also with this basis in equal rights of mankind.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States is an example of an assertion of equality of men as "All men are created equal" and the wording of men and man is a reference to both men and women, i.e. mankind. John Locke is sometimes considered the founder of this form.
Many state constitutions in the United States also use rights of man language rather than rights of person since the noun man has always been a reference to and an inclusion of both men and women.
Feminism is greatly informed by egalitarian philosophy, being a gender-focused philosophy of equality. However, feminism is distinguished from egalitarianism by also existing as a political and social movement.
At a cultural level, egalitarian theories have developed in sophistication and acceptance during the past two hundred years. Among the notable broadly egalitarian philosophies are socialism, communism, social anarchism, libertarian socialism, left-libertarianism and progressivism, some of which propound economic egalitarianism. However, whether any of these ideas have been significantly implemented in practice remains a controversial question. Anti-egalitarianism or elitism is opposition to egalitarianism.
A very early example of equality of what might be described as outcome economic egalitarianism is the Chinese philosophy of agriculturalism which held that the economic policies of a country need to be based upon an egalitarian self sufficiency.
In socialism, social ownership of means of production is sometimes considered to be a form of economic egalitarianism because in an economy characterized by social ownership the surplus product generated by industry would accrue to the population as a whole as opposed to a class of private owners, thereby granting each individual increased autonomy and greater equality in their relationships with one another. Although the economist Karl Marx is sometimes mistaken to be an egalitarian, Marx eschewed normative theorizing on moral principles altogether. However, Marx did have a theory of the evolution of moral principles in relation to specific economic systems.
The American economist John Roemer has put forth a new perspective of equality and its relationship to socialism. Roemer attempts to reformulate Marxist analysis to accommodate normative principles of distributive justice, shifting the argument for socialism away from purely technical and materialist reasons to one of distributive justice. Roemer argues that according to the principle of distributive justice, the traditional definition of socialism based on the principle that individual compensation be proportional to the value of the labour one expends in production is inadequate. Roemer concludes that egalitarians must reject socialism as it is classically defined in order for equality to be realized.
Egalitarianism and non-human animals
Many philosophers, including Ingmar Persson, Peter Vallentyne, Nils Holtug, Catia Faria and Lewis Gompertz, have argued that egalitarianism implies that the interests of non-human animals must be taken into account as well. Philosopher Oscar Horta has further argued that "[e]galitarianism implies rejecting speciesism, and in practice it prescribes ceasing to exploit nonhuman animals" and that we should aid animals suffering in nature. Furthermore, Horta argues that "because [nonhuman animals] are worse off in comparison to humans, egalitarianism prescribes giving priority to the interests of nonhuman animals".
Religious and spiritual egalitarianism
The Sikh faith was founded upon egalitarian principles, reaffirming the notion of equality not only based upon race, but also between the genders. This equality led to denunciation of sati, the practice of widows sacrificing themselves on the funeral pyres of their deceased husband, but which actually occurred due to the wives of warriors preferring to commit self-immolation over becoming the bounty of war for the Central Asians that were waging wars in India and Afghanistan during the early Ghazni wars. The scriptural injunction is often ascribed as providing women in the Sikh faith equal rights to practice their faith and be regarded as created equal in the eyes of God. Whilst the noble premise to strive for egalitarianism, many Sikhs still practice strong tribal casteism, with greater rigidity than the Hindu archetype from which the practice was inherited. Despite the rhetoric of equality, scholars have "found contradictions in the Sikh rhetoric of equality and widespread discrimination against Sikh's of low castes". Furthermore, despite many Sikh scholars decreeing the egalitarian tenets of Sikhism denouncing sexism, female infanticide, dowry, sati, or the condemning of widows to a life of solitude and isolation – the reality is these practices have remained prevalent whilst they have long fallen out of favour with the other ethnocultural religious groups in the Indian continent, like Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.
The Christian egalitarian view holds that the Bible teaches the fundamental equality of people of all racial and ethnic mixes, all economic classes and all age groups, but within the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, God and the overarching principles of scripture.
Within the wide range of Christianity there are dissenting views to this from opposing groups, some of which are complementarians. There are many that say that the Bible encourages equality and also encourages law and order and social structure (for example, parents having authority over their children and husbands authority over their wives). These ideas are considered by some to be contrary to the ideals of egalitarianism.
Judaism is a universalist religion due to the belief that one God created the entire universe. A further distinction has to be made however. Judaism teaches that Jews (defined as either the biological descendants of Jacob "Israel", the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham or someone who converted) have a specific covenant with God as a chosen people (Deutoronomy 7:6 "chosen as God's treasured people") to serve as an example of God's light to the rest of the world. The oral Torah and Rabbinic literature codified in the Talmud makes key distinctions in religious and legal contexts between Jews and the gentiles (meaning literally "the nations"). However, Judaism teaches that all people are the creations of God and are commanded in the seven universal moral laws known as the Seven Laws of Noah. In this aspect, Judaism is universalist in its divine message, but not in its religious obligations. In reform and conservative Judaism, egalitarian refers to nullification of religious gender separations. Synagogues that identify as egalitarian allow mixed seating (i.e. no mechitza) and allow women to lead services with men in attendance as well as read publicly from the Torah.
The Quran states: "O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted". Muhammad echoed these egalitarian sentiments, sentiments which clashed with the practices of the pre-Islamic cultures. In a review of Louise Marlow's Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought Ismail Poonawala wrote: "With the establishment of the Arab-Muslim Empire, however, this egalitarian notion, as well as other ideals, such as social justice and social service, that is, alleviating suffering and helping the needy, which constituted an integral part of the Islamic teaching, slowly receded into the background. The explanation given for this change generally reiterates the fact that the main concern of the ruling authorities became the consolidation of their own power and the administration of the slate rather than upholding and implementing those Islamic ideals nurtured by the Qur'an and the Prophet".
Modern egalitarianism theory
Modern egalitarianism is a theory that rejects the classic definition of egalitarianism as a possible achievement economically, politically and socially. Modern egalitarianism theory, or new egalitarianism, outlines that if everyone had the same opportunity cost, then there would be no comparative advances and no one would gain from trading with each other. In essence, the immense gains people receive from trading with each other arise because they are unequal in characteristics and talents—these differences may be innate or developed so that people can gain from trading with each other.
The cultural theory of risk holds egalitarianism as defined by
- (1) a negative attitude towards rules and principles; and
- (2) a positive attitude towards group decision-making.
The theory distinguishes between hierarchists, who are positive towards both rules and groups; and egalitarianists, who are positive towards groups, but negative towards rules. This is by definition a form of anarchist equality as referred to by Alexander Berkman. Thus, the fabric of an egalitarianist society is held together by cooperation and implicit peer pressure rather than by explicit rules and punishment. However, Thompson et al. theorise that any society consisting of only one perspective, be it egalitarianist, hierarchist, individualist, fatalist or autonomist, will be inherently unstable as the claim is that an interplay between all these perspectives are required if each perspective is to be fulfilling. For instance, although an individualist according to cultural theory is aversive towards both principles and groups, individualism is not fulfilling if individual brilliance cannot be recognised by groups, or if individual brilliance cannot be made permanent in the form of principles. Accordingly, egalitarianists have no power except through their presence, unless they (by definition, reluctantly) embrace principles which enable them to cooperate with fatalists and hierarchists. They will also have no individual sense of direction in the absence of a group. This could be mitigated by following individuals outside their group, namely autonomists or individualists.
Berkman suggests that "equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity ... Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity. It does not mean that every one must eat, drink, or wear the same things, do the same work, or live in the same manner. Far from it: the very reverse in fact ... Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality ... Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse".
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed that an international proletarian revolution would bring about a socialist society which would then eventually give way to a communist stage of social development which would be a classless, stateless, moneyless, humane society erected on common ownership of the means of production and the principle of "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs". However, Marxism rejected egalitarianism in the sense of greater equality between classes, clearly distinguishing it from the socialist notion of the abolition of classes based on the division between workers and owners of productive property. Marx's view of classlessness was not the subordination of society to a universal interest (such as a universal notion of equality), but it was about the creation of the conditions that would enable individuals to pursue their true interests and desires, making Marx's notion of communist society radically individualistic.
Instead, Marx was a proponent of two principles, with the first ("To each according to his contribution") being applied to socialism and the second ("To each according to their needs") to an advanced communist society. Although Marx's position is often confused or conflated with distributive egalitarianism in which only the goods and services resulting from production are distributed according to a notional equality, in reality Marx eschewed the entire concept of equality as abstract and bourgeois in nature, preferring to focus on more concrete principles such as opposition to exploitation on materialist grounds and economic logic.
- "All men are created equal"
- Basic income
- Deep ecology
- Equal opportunity
- Equality of outcome
- Same-sex marriage
- Gift economy
- Inequity aversion
- Law of Jante
- Left-wing politics
- Reciprocal altruism
- Redistributive justice
- Social equality
- with fatalism termed as its opposite
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- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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