Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

Williams on Equality


In “The Idea of Equality” Bernard Williams tries to show that what appear to be trivial observations about equality offer meaningful support for egalitarian political programs (Williams 1973). Nozick maintains that Williams’s argument is not as novel as it appears to be (Nozick 1974, 235–36). In the end, as Nozick sees it, it amounts to repeating a familiar claim, namely, that society ought to ensure that people have things they need.


Williams contends that two apparently trivial observations about equality actually have significant implications. 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. This criticism of ideology is a significant implication of the apparently trivial observation that all people are equally human.

The apparently trivial 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. Again, he says, you get something meaningful out of what looks like a very uninspiring start.

Since this paper is very difficult, I posted a document titled “Read me first”. It goes over these arguments in more detail. You should read it first.


Nozick makes three basic points.

  1. It isn’t true in general that things should be distributed according to their natures or purposes. Suppose I’m a barber. Maybe I want to cut hair to talk to people or (horrors) to make a living. Why do I have to use my skills to cut the shaggiest hair instead?

  2. If Williams means that individuals are responsible for the distribution of goods, then the limits on liberty would be objectionable: doctors couldn’t demand money for their services, barbers couldn’t decide to cut only some people’s hair, and so on.

  3. If Williams means that society is responsible, then he doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s just the assertion that society should provide for the needs of its members. (As opposed, say, to barbering or other inessential goods and services.)


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.