Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

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

We had an extensive discussion of education. Alexa did not think that elementary and secondary education should be scarce: they should be available to everyone. In a similar vein, Katya said that literacy was a need and so more like health care. I think Williams agreed and meant his point to apply to higher education: that’s scarce, so not everyone can have it, so it should go to those who merit it.

Rachel noted that education can be valuable for more than the academic benefit. If so, then academic merit alone wouldn’t be enough to show who should get it. The point matches Williams’s structure: we determine how scarce goods should be distributed by identifying what the goods are for. If you can show that higher education is for something other than academics, then academic merit alone won’t be enough to tell us who should get it.

Alec ran with Williams’s suggestion at the end that a thoroughgoing commitment to equal opportunity would run contrary to equal respect for everyone. He said that genetic modifications are the only way to make things truly equal. Since this would be monstrous, he thought that shows there is something wrong with the singleminded pursuit of equality. He has to be right: the singleminded pursuit of any value is almost always a terrible idea.


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.