Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Williams on Equality


We talked about Bernard Williams’s paper “The Idea of Equality” (Williams 1973). In this paper Williams tries to show that what appear to be trivial observations about equality offer meaningful support for egalitarian political programs.

The two apparently trivial observations are that all people are equally human and that there ought to be a reason for treating some people differently than others.

Williams argues that one thing that our shared humanity involves is a desire for integrity and that this desire is frustrated when a society inculcates false beliefs in its members that distort their choices and ways of understanding their lives.

The point that there should be a reason for treating some people differently than others gets some bite when you consider the reasons that are appropriate for distributing some classes of goods. For example, health care and higher education are distributed unequally: some people get them while others do not. Williams thinks that the nature of these goods tells us what reasons are appropriate for giving them to some people but not others. Health care should be distributed according to need while higher education should be distributed according to merit. A society that treats wealth as a condition of getting these things distributes them for the wrong reasons. The idea of equality requires that they be distributed for the appropriate reasons, namely need and merit, respectively.

Our Discussion

I asked whether Williams was right to say that hierarchical societies depend on falsehoods, such as “the rich are smarter than the poor, and that’s why they are on top.” I think it is true for people who prize meritocracy as we do since, as Remy put it earlier, we think it is very important that people be in control of their own lives. So we expect a reason if we don’t win. But I wonder if we aren’t just projecting our own values onto other societies. One thing I thought I got out of Piketty is that the characters in the Jane Austen novels recognize that the people on top just got there through luck and marriage. They didn’t think anyone deserved their position. (I might be remembering that wrong and he might be analyzing the novels incorrectly, of course.) That sounds like a kind of society that is frankly hierarchical without needing to rely on lies.

Peter T. thought that a hierarchical society could work only if the social hierarchy is separated from wealth. Peter N. suspected that I’m wrong and that it’s part of human nature to demand a reason for your lot in life; we’re always going to make up stories to explain why things happened and we’re never satisfied with “it just did.” Kamyab noted that Nozick doesn’t rely on anything about merit. You could be the most talented person in the world, but if other people just don’t want to give you a job, you will be out of luck in Nozick’s world.

We compared Williams with Anderson a bit. I said that I thought that Williams’s idea that the nature of health care dictates that it should be distributed to people in ill health was superior to Anderson’s approach of putting social relations first. I think I should get care because otherwise I will die or be injured; whether the care enables me to participate as an equal in society is a secondary concern to me. Kamyab and Crystal disagreed; they thought Anderson’s story about health care made sense. Remy added that health care isn’t just about keeping you alive. It’s also for enabling you to enjoy your life. Pegging enjoyment of life to the capability to enter the social world as an equal doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all.


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: Cambridge University Press.