Williams on Equality

After finishing our discussion of thesis plans, we had a brief discussion of Bernard Williams’s paper, “The Idea of Equality” and the objections Robert Nozick raised against this paper in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.


Williams tries to show that seemingly vacuous points about equality actually yield interesting political conclusions.

So from the boring observation that all people are equally people he works his way to the fact that everyone has a desire to be identified with what they are doing and not be the instrument of another’s will (Williams 1973, 234). This, in turn, leads to an egalitarian political project of opposing hierarchies based on false consciousness or the manipulation of people’s beliefs to make them the instrument of other peoples’ wills.

The previous point was about something that should be equal: respect. The idea of equality also applies to things that are unequally distributed. Williams divides these goods into two categories: goods that should be distributed according to need and goods that should be distributed according to merit.

In both cases, we can move from the unpromising starting point that there must be some reason for unequal treatment to something that is actually interesting. This is so because the relevant reasons can be derived from the nature of the goods in question.

Thus it is irrational to distribute goods that should be distributed according to need, such as health care, on the basis of something else, such as money. Similarly, it is irrational to distribute goods that should be distributed according to merit, such as access to higher education, on the bases of anything other than aptitude.

In other words, if we look at the nature of the goods we are distributing, we can tell what kinds of reasons would or would not be compatible with treating people as equals. This is so even though the goods themselves will not be distributed equally: the sick will get health care while the healthy will not and the capable will gain admission to universities while the unqualified will not.

Williams ends with an observation that the two sets of egalitarian ideas he has developed will inevitably clash with one another. The first set, concerning respect, holds that people are owed respect regardless of their position, talents, or achievement; the person is more important than the accomplishment or failure. The second set, concerning equal opportunity, holds that there are some goods that are desirable but that only the winners of a competition can have them. This only makes sense if accomplishment or failure really do matter.


Nozick concentrates solely on Williams’s discussion of the goods that are unequally distributed: need goods and merit goods. He criticizes Williams for paying no attention to how the goods are supplied. No one thinks that barbers must provide haircuts to those who need them, even though that is what their skills are for and no one thinks it is a problem that RN had a better chance of winning his wife’s affections than other suitors who were less clever and handsome. So why do we think doctors must provide health care and colleges must award positions on merit rather than, say, to the children of former graduates?

Of course, Williams never said otherwise. His argument was about the rational distribution of goods, not about anyone’s duties to distribute them in a rational way. His point was surely that society should arrange a rational distribution of health care and college admissions.

So these two are talking past one another, in my opinion.

Still, Nozick does have a good point. There is an assumption in Williams (and me) that the distribution of some goods is a social responsibility while the distribution of others is not. We really should be able to say what makes the difference.

Here is a start. Society is incapable of distributing personal attraction. Try as it might, it cannot make Mrs. Nozick attracted to anyone she is not already attracted to. Or, if it could, the moral costs would be extreme. And no one would really want to be the object of anyone else’s manipulated affections anyway. For better or worse, finding a romantic partner is necessarily not a social problem.

Still, it would be nice to have a more principled line. I suppose that is the sort of thing that Anderson is trying to do in her piece. Her principled line is derived from the conditions necessary for equal social relations. It would be an interesting project to see whether that could be used to address Nozick’s good point.


Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen. 1973. “The Idea of Equality.” In Problems of the Self, 230–49. Cambridge University Press.