Should equality be a political ideal ? Essay

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Should equality be a political ideal?

Andrew Heywood states that ‘few political principles have proved as contentious as equality in polarising opinion’ (Heywood, 2004, p.284). Indeed, this assertion appears plausible as for centuries political scientists have debated the moral as well as practical questions surrounding equality’s place in political philosophy. However, within modern political thought, there is an almost universal agreement that equality, in some form, is desirable as it limits the "pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption.’ (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2009, p. 12) Will Kymlicka went in far as saying that ‘every plausible theory has the same ultimate value, which is equality’ apart from some theories ‘like Nazism, which does not merit serious consideration’ (Kymlicka, 1990, p. 18) .In addition, there are various moral arguments that, although have been challenged, have been unanimously supported in implementing equality as a cornerstone of all societal reform. Equality, however, cannot easily be defined as ‘treating likes alike’ but instead should be sub-defined into two main categories: political equality and social equality. Indeed, although only in recent times has political equality become virtually unanimous and therefore transformed from a societal ideal to a societal feature, it could be said that within modern political thought there has been an increasing trend towards a form of social equality, specifically through an endorsement of social justice and equality of opportunity. However, the more extreme notion of equality of outcome has been more or less disregarded as a political ideal due to its inherent link with communism, an ideology that has been declared by some as flawed after the fall of the USSR. This essay will therefore differentiate between the types of equality and argue that all forms of political equality and some forms of social justice are desirable as not only a political ideal but as ideals that society should be built upon.
Although the underlying premises behind political equality have been challenged in the past, in modern political philosophy equality is fundamental to society and therefore should be political ideal. However, before exploring the different implications that political equality espouses, it is first important that we define political equality as an ideal that promotes the introduction of equal legal, social and political rights to all individuals. This idea is rooted in the ideas of natural rights theorists- such as Locke and Hobbes- who asserted that all men are equal by virtue of a shared human existence and that ‘men are equal in the eyes of God.’ (Locke, 1821, p. 17) Bernard Williams developed these ideas by developing the moral justifications for formal equality. Firstly, he stated that common human characteristics such as speaking the same language and the capacity to feel pain as well as a capacity to feel affection for others give rise to moral claims that underpin formal equality (Williams, 1962, p. 16-20). However, historically, people have argued that due to different political and social arrangements, as well as culturally embedded practice, that the state has taken into account the moral claims of a certain group of people but have disregarded similar claims from another group. Indeed, there is a huge amount of empirical evidence to support this argument including the notion of apartheid in South Africa and a lack of rights attributed to women in Middle Eastern states. Despite this, the fact that these states have been and continue to be criticized exemplifies that there is a universal acceptance of common humanity which has given rise to moral arguments that seek to underpin legal equality. Although Williams also stated that an acceptance of common humanity is ‘trivial’ (Williams, 1962, p. 55), it is clear that it is actually important because if there