Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

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

Alas, your note taker could not keep up under the rigors of zoom teaching. So we have no specific notes from this discussion.


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.