In his book, ‘Political Philosophy’, Adam Swift implies the identification of two kinds of equality- formal equality and distributive equality. Formal equality refers to the idea that all the people in a political community should be treated equally, and that the state ‘should treat its citizens with equal concern and respect.’2 Distributive equality refers to the equality of resources; while Rawls suggests that equality of outcome entails distribution of ‘positional goods’ others have argued that welfare, opportunity for welfare or income should be the metric for equality of outcome. 3
Formal equality, articulated by Aristotle in reference to Plato, holds that one must ‘treat like cases as like.’4 Adam Swift believes that ‘people’s prospects in life should depend on their ability and effort, not their social background’5. Furthermore, he claims that formal equality is necessary, as there is a widening gap between classes. His understanding is that statistically 50% of the poorest households in the UK supply a mere 7% of university students6. However, the importance of equality in social relationships should not be doubted. Swift is of the opinion that the absence of this formal equality would lead to the exploitation, marginalisation, domination and the general oppression of certain groups7. In today’s world, for example, groups such as ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled seek ‘equality of status and recognition’ in society.8 Additionally, a historical case study supporting this point can also be looked at with regard to the USA. Women in the USA were denied the right to vote right up till 19209, before which woman enjoyed an inferior position than men in the US society. Despite making progress in this area, modernity brings new inequalities. The United States’ Defence Against Marriage Act defines marriage as a ‘legal union between one man and one woman’10, thereby leaving American homosexual couples as unequal in the eyes of American law. This blatant disregard for the moral claims of one group, whilst recognising them in another, heterosexual couples, is why formal equality needs to be a political ideal. In all, it can be concluded that formal equality still provides the much needed foundation of equal treatment in society.
There are, however, arguments that formal equality should not be a political ideal. Scholars such as Swift argue that the measures formal equality proposes for equality to be achieved fall short, and will not be successful without the backing of the more radical approach found in the equality of opportunity or distributive equality. Swift justifies his view by challenging the two main principles of formal equality and shows his understanding of how distributive equality can fix their short comings and faults. Firstly, he explains that equality before the law is meaningless if some can and others cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.11 He makes the point that the wealthy are able to spend inordinate amounts of money on legal representation, a luxury that the poorer members of society cannot