Is equality ‘‘the endangered species of political ideals’’ (Dworkin 2002, 1)? It certainly seems that a concern with equality of outcome has been eclipsed in the popular imagination by an understanding of equality that focuses on formal equality of opportunity, and that correlative theory of equality that focus on the redistribution of resources has been marginalized by an emergent preoccupation with the importance of cultural recognition and democratic inclusion. Contemporary ‘‘equality’’ policies and theories in the first world, therefore, tend to focus on issues of cultural and political inequality rather than inequalities in distributional goods.

Those who are considered to be ‘‘unequal’’ are increasingly seen to be ethnic minorities, disabled, the elderly, gays and lesbians, religious minorities, and so on, rather than the poor. A consequence of this shifting understanding of equality is the emergence of a commitment to pursuing and theorizing equality in a way that acknowledges and celebrates differences. While attempts to address economic inequalities have traditionally focused on distributive issues, seeking to erase the (economic) diVerences between people as the means of securing their equality, attempts to address cultural and political inequalities usually entail calls that (cultural) diVerences be recognized and respected, rather than denied or eroded, as a precondition for securing their equality.

In other words, the shift in concern from economic to cultural and political inequalities is accompanied by a shift in focus from sameness to difference. Equality now appears, in both policy and theory debates, to require respect for difference rather than a search for similarities. Some theorists are concerned that this turn to difference may have served to eclipse, rather than augment, the earlier concern with economic inequalities. Many liberal egalitarians argue that the preoccupation with groups rather than individuals undermines the principle of equal treatment and distracts attention from more pressing economic inequalities (see Barry 2001).

Others, more sympathetic to the concern with group inequalities, argue that the narrow focus on cultural inequalities and recognition has nonetheless created an unnecessary split between recognition and redistribution, or between the political and the economic. While some have come to view this debate as misguided, it has nonetheless inspired theorists to articulate theories of equality that attempt to negotiate difference by engaging economic, cultural, and political concerns.


Equality is perhaps best understood as a distinctively modern value, in that ‘‘under conditions of modern social citizenship, it is inequality, not equality which requires moral justification’’ (Turner 1986, 18). The key features of this ‘‘modern social citizenship’’ have, following T. H. Marshall, been widely understood to entail civil, political, and social rights. Civil citizenship refers to equality before the law; political citizenship entails access to parliamentary institutions, and social citizenship requires a guarantee of economic and social well-being.

Debates about equality amongst contemporary political theorists—and liberal egalitarians in particular—have tended, until recently, to focus on social citizenship (implicitly assuming that civil and political equality have been assured, and therefore no longer require scrutiny). Liberal democratic polities are grounded on their commitment to civil and political equality: to equality before the law and the equal right to vote and stand for election for all citizens. 

The pursuit of social equality has been more fraught and con-tested, given the empirical existence of extensive inequality of wealth and income in capitalist societies. The tension between the principled liberal-democratic commitment to egalitarian citizenship and the continued material inequality of economic and social well-being has generated substantial theoretical literature, which attempts to explain and justify the place of social inequality from an egalitarian perspective. 

This literature might, perhaps rather uncharitably, be viewed as an elaborate attempt to reconcile the demands of citizenship with the need for profitability (Turner 1986, 27). From this perspective, debates about equality amongst liberal political theorists can be understood as attempts to square the commitment to social justice with an acceptance of social inequality. Central to this project has been the notions of meritocracy and equality of opportunity, as distinct from equality of outcome or condition.

It has been suggested that political theorists tend to operate on an ‘‘egalitarian plateau,’’ in which everyone accepts that citizens should be treated as equals (see Dworkin 1997, 179–83; Kymlicka 1990, 5). However, there is a profound disagreement as to whether ‘‘treating people as equals’’ requires anything beyond formal civil and political equality. Disagreement about the (il)legitimacy of inequalities of income and wealth from an egalitarian perspective has focused attention on what has come to be called (usually by its critics) a ‘‘distributive paradigm,’’ whereby theorists reflect upon which distributions are just.

The first thing of note within this literature is that very few people indeed argue for a distribution of wealth and income that is ‘‘equal’’ in the sense of being the same for all. In the 1930s R. H. Tawney was happy to argue that: ‘‘Though an ideal of an equal distribution of material wealth may continue to elude us, it is necessary, nevertheless, to make haste towards it’’ (Tawney 1931, 291) Dworkin, by contrast, states categorically that no one would now seriously propose equality of outcome as a political ideal (2002, 2).

Perhaps because equalizing outcomes has come to be viewed as a politics of envy that denies choice, the liberal egalitarian literature is characterized, with very few exceptions, not by the debate between equality of opportunities and outcomes, but on different sorts of equality of opportunity. This debate about varieties of equality of opportunity is framed nicely by Adam Swift’s three-fold typology of minimal, conventional, and radical.

2.1 Equality of Opportunity

On a minimal conception of equality of opportunity, ‘‘a person’s race or gender or religion should not be allowed to affect their chances of being selected for a job, of getting and good education, and so on’’ (Swift 2001, 99). What matters are their skills and their talents. The conventional conception, on the other hand, holds that in addition to the minimal concern with relevant competencies, one should also be concerned to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to acquire the relevant competencies, skills, and qualifications.

In a society that is characterized by widely divergent levels of wealth, this requirement may entail restricting parents’ ability to buy education for their children and redistributing resources to the children of the less well-off families to ensure that they receive an education equal to that of children of rich parents. Removing the influence of social background altogether may be a forlorn task, but this approach seeks to limit the constraints on the acquisition of skills for all. In this way, as Swift rightly points out, the distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome looks vulnerable: securing equality of opportunity will require some redistribution of resources in order to compensate some for social disadvantage.

By contrast, the radical conception of equality of opportunity challenges the assumption, implicit in the two approaches above, that inequality is perfectly acceptable as long as it is based on talent alone, rather than social or cultural factors. On the radical conception, the talented and untalented should be equally entitled to rewards. For, if it is unfair that children who happen to be born to rich parents get superior opportunities (and therefore rewards) to those who happen to be born to poor parents, it is also unfair—advocates of this approach suggest—that children who happen to be born talented get

2   Although Anne Phillips does precisely this in her article, ‘‘Defending Equality of Outcome’’ (2004). superior opportunities, and therefore rewards, to those children who happen to be less talented. The minimal conception of equality of opportunity has been criticized by many liberal egalitarians on the basis that the meritocratic system generated by a commitment to equality of opportunities is widely perceived to be compatible with, and indeed to generate, a society with huge disparities in income and status in which a talented elite dominate while the disadvantaged are deemed to have failed as a result of their own personal deficiencies.

John Rawls describes this approach to equality as an ‘‘equal chance to leave the less fortunate behind in a personal quest for influence and social position’’ (Rawls 1972, 108). In its place, he famously proposed a theory of justice that entails a principle of equal basic liberties and a second principle in which ‘‘social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity’’ (Rawls 1972, 302). In this way, the civil, political, and social citizenship rights mapped out by Marshall are bifurcated, with civil and political rights being subject to criteria of formal equality, and social and economic citizenship being evaluated according to two other criteria: equality of opportunity and the difference principle (which states that social and economic inequality is just only when it helps to improve the situation of the worst-off).

Meanwhile, Ronald Dworkin articulates a radical form of equality of opportunity by recommending that people start with ‘‘equal resources’’ (which may require the state to compensate some people for their ‘‘natural’’ disabilities and lack of talent), and are then allowed to pursue their ambitions within the marketplace (with a laissez-faire state) (Dworkin 2002, 87). The distribution of resources must be allowed to be ambition-sensitive, but not talent-sensitive—because talents are ‘‘traceable to genetic luck’’ and therefore arbitrary with respect to social justice (2002, 108). In other words, Dworkin starts with a presumption of equality, asks what would justify inequality, and suggests that while differential talent would not, differential ambition would.

2.2 Distributive Concerns

The brief survey of debates regarding equality of opportunity suggests that there are significant diVerences amongst liberal egalitarians. However, there are also shared assumptions—regarding the importance of individual choice and the role of the market as a mechanism for ensuring fair distributions— which critics of this literature challenge. These critics tend to focus on liberal egalitarians’ exclusive preoccupation with the distribution of resources and their failure both to address the causes of structural inequality and to recognize human diversity.

Some critics suggest that Dworkin’s account of equality of opportunity has been successful because it incorporates the key concerns of the antiegalitarian right: choice and responsibility (Armstrong 2003, 415). Here equality becomes a discretionary privilege that one must earn—and whether one does so will depend upon one’s ‘‘choices.’’ The liberal egalitarian literature assumes that one can distinguish between talent and ambition and be relatively sure which part of an individual’s life is the result of each. Armstrong suggests that it, therefore, focuses attention on the market and resonates with the neoliberal rhetoric of economic competitiveness. Indeed, liberal egalitarians are increasingly likely to advocate the free market as the most appropriate route to egalitarian justice. This means that they maintain a concern with material and financial distributions, rather than distributions of power or status, ‘‘thus facilitating the colonization of all fields of human activity by the market’’ (Armstrong 2003, 421).

Other theorists suggest that egalitarianism cannot be reduced to the distribution of one thing, or to a single value. Jonathan Wolff, for example, argues that there are two ideas central to egalitarianism: fairness and respect. Fairness, he suggests, demands that no one be disadvantaged by arbitrary factors and, as such, ‘‘in order to implement genuinely fair policies a great deal of knowledge of individual circumstances is required’’ (WolV 1998, 106– 7). The gathering of this knowledge—in order to determine whether someone is unemployed because of a lack of talent (a circumstance they face) or because of a lack of ambition (a choice they have made)—will, he suggests, require intrusive questioning, and possibly shameful revelation and humiliation (1998, 113). This puts the pursuit of fairness in potential conflict with the granting of respect. Accordingly, Wolff proposes that both fairness and respect be valued by egalitarians, and more broadly, that ‘‘distributive justice should be limited in its application by other egalitarian concerns’’ (WolV 1998, 122).

Similarly, Amartya Sen argues that egalitarianism should not be reduced to the distribution of one thing. He criticizes Dworkin’s account of the initial equality of resources, and Rawls’s account of primary goods, as neglecting the importance of diversity in that different people will need different amounts and kinds of goods to reach the same levels of well-being.

Social diversity means that the conversion of resources into opportunities will vary from person to person: some people will need more than others to achieve the same capabilities. differences in age, gender, disability, and so on can mean that two people with the same ‘‘commodity bundle’’ will have divergent opportunities regarding the quality of life. He suggests, therefore, that human diversity ‘‘is no secondary complication (to be ignored, or to be introduced ‘later on); it is a fundamental aspect of our interest in equality’’ (Sen 1992, xi). In this way, Sen introduces the notion of multiplicity to the distribution process, broadening the focus on equality debates beyond resources to whatever people need to develop their capabilities.

Meanwhile, authors working within the framework of gender justice tend to critique liberal-egalitarian theories of distributive justice as gender-blind and androcentric. For example, many theories of egalitarian justice assume that the concept of justice applies only to the public sphere, taking distributions within the family as given. Feminist political theorists have argued that analyses of social justice that are sensitive to gender need to include the private sphere and consider the gendered division of labor within it (see Bubeck 1995; Okin 1989; Pateman 1987; Phillips 1997).

They have also challenged the individualism inherent within much mainstream egalitarian theorizing, which marginalizes the impact of social structures, ignores the significance of social groups, and fails to identify structural inequalities (see Young 2001). From this perspective, the liberal theories of equality have no theory of inequality and so fail to analyze the origins of the forms of inequality that they want to eradicate. Ingrid Robeyns, for example, suggests that Dworkin’s liberal egalitarianism is ‘‘structurally unable to ac- count for the cultural aspects of gender, race, and other dimensions of human diversity that create unjust inequalities between people’’ (Robeyns 2003, 541). The pursuit of equal opportunities in the context of human diversity is a complex endeavor.

Feminist theorists argue that, in the context of a patriarchal society, the pursuit of gender equality is constantly entrapped by exaggeration and denial (Rhode 1992, 149). Two distinct strategies have consistently emerged, for example, when considering how employment legislation ought to be drafted in order to deal with the fact that women may require pregnancy leave and benefits. The first approach proposes that pregnancy should be included within general gender-neutral leave and benefit policies. Such policies would be relevant to any physical condition that renders anyone, male or female, unable to work.

The second approach suggests that this does not actually constitute the pursuit of gender-neutrality as it takes male lives as the norm and so disadvantages women (Williams 1984). From this perspective, the problem is not only that policies claiming to be neutral are actually partial, but also that the distinctiveness of women’s contribution is not positively recognized. By contrast, some feminists propose a gender-differentiated approach that might positively recognize and give public confirmation of, the social contribution of childbearing. This entails the recommendation of positive action strategies, based on women’s diVerences from men.

Yet, as, Deborah Rhode argues, this strategy reinforces feminine stereotypes rather than feminist principles given that ‘‘pregnancy-related policies affect most women workers for relatively brief intervals,’’ while ‘‘the absence of broader disability, health, child-rearing, and care-taking assistance remains a chronic problem for the vast majority of employees, male and female, throughout their working lives’’ (Rhode 1992, 154).

This unease with the oscillation between recommending equal treatment and positive action has led to the emergence of a third gender equality strategy: gender mainstreaming. Recognizing that the criteria of equivalence used to establish fairness might themselves be biased, mainstreaming aims to identify ‘‘how existing systems and structures cause indirect discrimination and altering or redesigning them as appropriate’’ (Rees 2002, 46–8). The aim of the mainstreaming strategy is therefore to focus on the structural reproduction of gender inequality and to transform the policy process such that gender bias is eliminated.

Meanwhile, with the political theory literature more generally, the response to the limitations of liberal egalitarianism is to broaden out the account of equality of opportunity such that it engages with cultural and political forces as well as economic ones, and considers structural and institutional barriers as well as individual ones. This refocuses attention back on civil and political rights, highlighting the extent to which these are still to be fully realized for many marginalized groups. It also replaces the liberal egalitarians’ apparent dichotomy between the ‘‘choices we make’’ and the ‘‘circumstances we face’’ with a more complex account of the ways in which social institutions, and the decisions others make within them, constitute and constrain the context in which we act.



Attempts to move beyond the liberal egalitarian approach to equality within political theory frequently appeal to difference, which signals an assertion of group cultural and political equality. Advocates of a politics of recognition, or difference theorists, insist that liberal egalitarianism has privatized cultural, religious, and other diVerences, which the state should recognize and take into account in its laws, institutions, practices, and policies. Treating citizens as equals does not entail treating them equally: laws may legitimately grant exemptions to some groups and not to others and public policies may focus on those groups whose cultures are under threat (see Kymlicka 1995). From this perspective, a politics of redistribution defines justice too narrowly and fails to focus on the importance of the diversity of ways of thought, life, tastes, and moral perspectives.

One of the most influential theorists of politics of recognition is Charles Taylor, who explains that treating people equally will entail distributive concerns but treating them as equals need not, because this entails recognizing what is different and distinctive about them. Treating people as equals will require giving due acknowledgment to each person’s identity, and this entails recognition of what is peculiar to each (Taylor 1992, 39). Accordingly, recognizing the unique identity of everyone requires not an identical set of rights for all, but the public acknowledgment of the particular worth of each. The argument that each individual’s unique identity ought to be recognized in order to grant that person dignity frequently slips into a correlative—but distinct—claim that group identities require recognition. These two claims are linked by the assumption that the expression of one’s unique identity will take the form of group identity—that groups portray an authentic expression of one’s individuality (Benhabib 2002, 53).

This second assertion of the importance of group difference challenges the individualism of liberal egalitarianism, emphasizing instead the culturally embedded nature of people. Whilst liberal egalitarians do, of course, acknowledge that individuals diVer culturally and religiously, they tend to view these diVerences as contingent and politically non-pertinent. From the perspective of a politics of recognition, this move is suspect: far from abstracting from diVerences, liberal polities and policies have more frequently institutionalized the values and norms of the dominant culture. difference theorists, therefore, suggest that, rather than denying the significance of these cultural norms, the state should acknowledge the diversity of cultures within the polity, grant laws that exempt some groups from laws and not others, create political institutions that give special group representation rights to marginalized groups, and modify cultural symbols in recognition of the presence of diverse groups.

Even some theorists working within the distributive paradigm have come to acknowledge the importance of cultural recognition to the pursuit of equality. Will Kymlicka, for example, argues that genuine equality requires group-specific rights for ethnic and national minorities. Accordingly, he endorses the ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court that: ‘‘the accommodation of diVerences is the essence of true equality’’. Arguing against those who suggest that equality requires equal rights for each individual regardless of race or ethnicity, he suggests that some minority claims may eliminate inequalities and are therefore just.

This argument for group rights invokes a distributional perspective in that group-differentiated rights—such as territorial autonomy, veto powers, guaranteed representation in central institutions, land claims, and language rights—are argued to help rectify disadvantages associated with being outvoted by the majority group. These demands for increased powers or resources are necessary to ensure the same opportunity to live and work in one’s culture (Kymlicka 1995, 110). This argument for group-differentiated land rights is based on a theory of distributive justice in that the claims are based on what groups need now to sustain themselves as distinct societies. This distinguishes Kymlicka’s defense of group rights from others, which is critical of the distributive paradigm.

Cultural recognition is therefore introduced onto the egalitarian agenda, eclipsing the primary status previously given to issues of redistribution. In this way, the shift in concern from economic to cultural inequalities is accompanied by a shift in focus from sameness to difference. Equality now appears to require respect for difference rather than a search for similarities. It also tends to focus on the importance of equality between groups rather than between individuals, incorporating analyses of the systems and structures that constitute and perpetuate the inequalities under consideration in the first place. Advocates and theorists of equality who focus their attention on oppression rarely claim that maldistribution is unimportant, but they do introduce other pressing concerns, which some critics now argue diverts attention away from this agenda.


3.1 Concerns about Recognition

While this move to theorize equality as entailing the recognition of difference has been extremely influential in recent years, there are critics of this trend. Two concerns have emerged as particularly pressing: the first focuses on the degree to which the tendency to privilege groups leads to fragmentation of the wider polity; the second focuses on the extent to which the preoccupation with cultural recognition and political inclusion results in the marginalization of issues of economic distribution. These concerns might be thought of as the problems of reification and displacement respectively (see Fraser 2000). In relation to the first of these, many liberal egalitarians have argued that the politics of recognition formalizes and freezes identities that are actually subject to constant change and thereby undermines solidarity across groups.

As one critic notes, a ‘‘focus on  arming identity produces debilitating political fragmentation, diverts attention from widening material inequality, and leads to a fetishism of identity groups, reinforcing the tendency of such groups to become exclusionary to outsiders and coercive to insiders’’ (Kiss 1999, 194). Others have argued that the ‘‘retribalization’’ inherent in group-specific claims erodes a sense of public-spiritedness (Elshtain 1995, 74) and endangers national identity (Miller 1995, 132). Given the controversial status of groups, and group rights, within the equality/difference debates, it is worth focusing on the place of groups in the various articulations of a politics of recognition and difference, and noting that the move from making the ‘‘ontological’’ claim regarding the importance of recognition to the dialogical self, to the ‘‘advocacy’’ claim regarding the importance of group rights to a just society is highly contested.

Benhabib, for instance, argues that it is ‘‘theoretically wrong and politically dangerous’’ to assume that the individual’s search for authentic selfhood should be subordinated to the struggles of groups (2002, 53). This is an interesting challenge because unlike many of the critics of group rights, Benhabib embraces certain aspects of a politics of difference. She challenges the view of the moral self as a disembedded and disembodied being and rejects universalistic moral theories that are restricted to the standpoint of the ‘‘generalized other’’ (Benhabib 1992, 159).

She also suggests that the abstraction inherent in this mode of theorizing leads to the denial of difference. Yet she nonetheless claims that Taylor makes an ‘‘illicit move’’ from the right of the individual to pursue an authentic form of life to the claim that groups pursuing a politics of difference would accommodate the realization of such individual authenticity (2002, 65). For Benhabib, the conception of groups entailed within the latter claim is too unitary to be sensitive to the contra- dictions and antagonisms within as well as between groups.

Anxieties about ‘‘the problem of reification’’ have led advocates of a politics of difference to argue that groups can best be viewed in relational rather than substantial terms. Groups should be conceptualized ‘‘not as substances or things or entities or organisms or collective individuals—as the imagery of discrete, concrete, tangible, bounded, and enduring ‘groups’ encourages us to do—but rather in relational, processual, dynamic, eventful, and disaggregated terms’’ (Brubaker 2004, 53). In this way, they hope to ‘‘retain a description of social group differentiation, but without fixing or reifying groups’’ (Young 2000, 89–90). The question remains, however, how this reconceptualization of ‘‘groups’’ impacts the actual political strategies advocated in the name of these groups. Barry, for instance, maintains that— notwithstanding this relational notion of social groups—Young continues to assume that the possession of a distinctive culture is what defines somebody as a member of a group. In so doing, she misdiagnoses the problem and therefore develops inappropriate cures.

Indeed, Barry suggests in his ‘‘egalitarian critique of multiculturalism,’’ that the proposed group-based cures are not only inappropriate but also counter-productive, in that they erode the basis for solidarity necessary for a politics of redistribution (Barry 2001, 325–6). All policies aimed at achieving group recognition can actually achieve, he suggests, is ‘‘a minor rescuing of the characteristics of the individuals occupying diVerent locations in an un- changed structure that creates grossly unequal incomes and opportunities’’ (2001, 326). He argues that the politics of difference is mistaken in its assertion that equality requires recognition of citizens’ identity-related differences (2001, 305–17), and argues that the problems addressed by difference theorists can all ultimately be reduced to problems of formal economic inequality (2001, 319). Accordingly, traditional liberal legal policies can ad- dress the problem. Moreover, the preoccupation with difference undermines the solidarity necessary for the politics of redistribution (2001, 325).

This last claim links the two broad critiques of the politics of difference: the problem of reification and the problem of displacement. The former, which relates to the inappropriate preoccupation with groups, is argued to contribute to the latter, which relates to the declining concern with economic inequality, both theoretically and practically. In this way, liberal egalitarians argue that the emergence of a politics of difference not only diverts theoretical attention from issues of redistribution to those of recognition but also informs diverse policy initiatives that further erode the conditions required to pursue redistributive politics.

The claim implicit in a politics of recognition, that groups have diVerences that require state recognition, shifts attention away from the structures that create inequalities and on to the characteristics of the ‘‘claimant.’’ One of the limitations of focusing on group rights, therefore, lies in the fact that depicting the problem of inequality as a problem relating to the group as an entity serves to obfuscate the problem of inequality as a problem of systematic structures of oppression and domination. In other words, the reification of group identities contributes to the displacement of struggles to address economic inequality.

Whilst more sympathetic to the concerns of difference theorists, Anne Phillips also interrogates the ‘‘parting of the ways between political and economic concerns’’ (1999, 1) in Which Equalities Matter? Her argument, that there has been a shift of attention from the class inequalities that undermine democracy to the gender, racial, or cultural hierarchies that subvert equal citizenship (1999, 14), grapples with the ‘‘problem of displacement.’’ She notes that this shift has resulted in a polarization between economic and political approaches to inequalities, with political approaches appearing to jettison concern with economic issues altogether (Phillips 1999, 15).

Similarly, Nancy Fraser argues that the preoccupation with cultural domination works to marginalize concerns about economic injustices (1995). Accordingly, she proposes a theoretical framework that addresses both the political economy and culture and considers both redistribution and recognition as appropriate responses to inequality, but ones that stand in tension to one another: the normative politics of recognition conflicts with the transformative politics of redistribution in that the former arms group identity whilst the latter aims to eliminate the group as a group (Fraser 2000).

The lengthy debate about recognition and redistribution (see Markell in this volume) signals the extent to which concerns about both maldistribution and cultural oppression now frame attempts to theorize equality. Yet the binary construction of this debate has perhaps obfuscated the importance of domination in relation to theorizing equality. The neat dichotomy between recognition and redistribution appears to allow no place for specific political issues, pertaining to political participation and citizenship. It pits economic maldistribution against cultural oppression and thereby allows no conceptual space for considerations of democratic inclusion.



While ‘‘equality theorists’’ has focused on economic maldistribution, and ‘‘difference theorists’’ has focused on cultural oppression, those who focus on political domination might usefully be termed ‘‘diversity theorists.’’ Critical of the economic individualism of liberal egalitarians, and concerned about the essentialism of recognition theorists, diversity theorists focus both on equality of political participation, and on the process by which the meaning of equality is itself determined.

Diversity theorists, attempting to negotiate a way beyond the apparent tensions of equality as redistribution or as recognition, invoke the import- ance of political voice and democratic inclusion. Bhikhu Parekh, for instance, suggests that redistribution requires principles to decide who is entitled to make what claims, and these principles ‘‘can only be arrived at by means of a democratic dialogue, which generates them, tests their validity, and gives them legitimacy’’ (Parekh 2004, 207). This emphasis on democratic inclusion shifts attention from the perennial ‘‘equality of what?’’ question (resources or dignity?) to the wider issue of who partakes in this very debate. Centrally, it focuses attention on the legitimacy of the actual process by which the norms of equivalence are derived. In this way, procedural norms also become central to the pursuit of equality. A concern for democratic participation, therefore, complements the debate on substantive equality.

As Benhabib notes, every procedure of universalizability presupposes that ‘‘like cases ought to be treated alike:’’ the difficulty lies in knowing what constitutes a ‘‘like’’ situation. ‘‘Such a process of reasoning, to be at all viable, must involve the viewpoint of the concrete other’’ (Benhabib 1992, 163). Reflecting on the implications of adopting the standpoint of the concrete other in relation to the liberal-egalitarian theories of equality, one is struck immediately by the unilateral manner in which Dworkin suggests that while diVerences of talent should not be considered relevant when treating like cases alike, diVerences of ambition should.

Yet, as Monica Mookherjee rightly notes, the rectification of unequal circumstances ‘‘cannot be achieved by applying preconceived interpretations of the term equality itself. This is because a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of equality is the enabling of excluded groups to unsettle and destabilize meanings and interpretations that the institutional culture has hitherto taken as universal and complete’’. Enabling excluded groups to unsettle institutionally accepted conceptions of equality will require parity of participation, which makes democratic inclusion central to both the meaning and the realization of equality.

Influentially, Young argues that while there are pressing reasons for philosophers in contemporary American society to attend to the issues of the distribution of wealth and resources, ‘‘many public appeals to justice do not concern primarily the distribution of material goods’’ (1990, 19). They are also concerned with stereotyping and negative cultural representations, and with the justice of decision-making procedures. She suggests that while civil equality requires an end to ‘‘cultural imperialism,’’ political equality requires democratic decision-making.

In order to pursue these wider goals of equality, one needs to engage with and eradicate oppression, which ‘‘consists in systematic institutional processes which inhibit people’s ability to play and communicate with others or to express their feelings and perspectives on social life in a context where others can listen’’ (Young 1990, 38), and domination, which ‘‘consists in institutional conditions which inhibit or prevent people from participating in determining their actions’’ (Young 1990, 38). So, whereas Taylor’s politics of recognition focuses on oppression (as defined above), Young’s politics of difference aims to challenge both oppression and domination, focusing attention on democratic inclusion as well as cultural recognition.

Accordingly, Young proposes that mechanisms for the effective representation of all citizens should entail institutional and financial support for the self-organization of oppressed groups, group generation of policy proposals, and group veto power regarding specific policies that affect a group directly (Young 2000, 141–1). These proposals have been echoed practically in international campaigns to introduce candidate quotas for women, reserved seats for ethnic minorities, and group representation on a wide array of governing bodies.

This marks a shift in focus, away from the substantive theorization of equality and towards a consideration of procedural norms. Here, intriguingly, the earlier equality/difference debate within gender theory, which led to the development of mainstreaming as an equality strategy, could usefully be drawn upon. However, procedural concerns cannot supplant substantive concerns, for substantial economic equality may well be necessary for us to be political equals. This demands that debates about equality be iterative processes: for whilst fair procedures are needed to define what substantial equality entails, some form of substantial equality may be required to secure fair procedures.


In sum, equality is increasingly theorized as an issue of maldistribution, oppression, and domination. While liberal egalitarianism focuses primarily on maldistribution, and a politics of recognition addresses cultural oppression, theories of democratic inclusion engage with the need to eradicate domination. This shifts the theorist’s focus away from simply trying to define the meaning of equality, towards also articulating the processes whereby others might equally participate in its definition.

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