The Individualist Ethical Justification of Equality and Its Problems

  • John Charvet


There is in modern English-speaking political philosophy a longstanding tradition of justifying an egalitarian basic structure to society in utilitarian terms. I do not mean by this the simple assertion and re-assertion of Bentham’s supposed dictum that everyone is to count for one and nobody for more than one. That fundamental moral requirement is compatible, in the context of a utilitarian ethic, with inegalitarian basic structures comprising ruling classes and unequal rights should such structures turn out to produce the best consequences. A utilitarian justification of equality, then, involves the claim that organizing society on the basis of a structure of fundamentally equal rights will in fact produce more good overall than any alternative structure, where good is understood in terms of people’s subjective states of welfare. Such claims are to be found in Bentham, John Stuart Mill, R. M. Hare, and many other utilitarian thinkers. I shall not, however, discuss these arguments. I shall follow the dominant contemporary philosophical opinion in rejecting such utilitarian justifications on the grounds articulated by Rawls that they do not sufficiently secure against a person’s rights being overridden for the sake of a greater utility accruing to others as a result of such discrimination.


Moral Person Range Property Personal Project Human Equality Standard Justification 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    J. Rawls (1999a), A Theory of Justice, rev. edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 3Google Scholar
  2. R. Dworkin (1977), Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duckworth), 269.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    R. M. Hare, (1981), Moral Thinking (Oxford: Clarendon Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    G. Vlastos, (1962), ‘Justice and Equality’, in R. B. Brandt (ed.), Social Justice (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall), 31–72.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    S. I. Benn, (1967), ‘Egalitarianism and the Equal Consideration of Interests’, J. R. Pennock and J. W. Chapman (eds), Nomos IX: Equality (New York: Atherton Press), 38–60.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    B. Williams, (1962), ‘The Idea of Equality’, P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society, Series II (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), 110–31.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    R. Dworkin, (1983), ‘Comment on Narveson: In Defense of Equality’, Social Philosophy and Policy 1/1: 35.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    R. Dworkin, (2000), Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 5–6.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    R. Dworkin, (2011), Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 202–11Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Political Liberalism does not seem to me to alter Rawls’s understanding of the problem of equality and as it adds further complications to Rawls’s already complex overall position, I have decided to ignore it. J. Rawls (1993), Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    D. A. Lloyd Thomas (1979), ‘Equality within the Limits of Reason’, Mind 88/352: 548–53.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    T. Nagel (1991), Equality and Partiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 3–20.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    T. Nagel (1970), The Possibility of Altruism (NY: Oxford University Press), 99–115.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    W. Godwin (1985), Political Justice, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books), 169–70.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    G. Cupit (2000), ‘The Basis of Equality’, Philosophy 75/1: 105–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 25.
    I. Carter (2011), ‘Respect and the Basis of Equality’, Ethics 121/3: 538–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© John Charvet 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Charvet
    • 1
  1. 1.London School of EconomicsUK

Personalised recommendations