Contemporary Theories of Equality: A Critical Review

Revista Juridica Universidad de Puerto Rico, Vol. 74, p. 131, 2005

Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 15/2013

42 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2009 Last revised: 8 Apr 2014

See all articles by Martin Hevia

Martin Hevia

Universidad Torcuato Di Tella

Joel I. Colón-Ríos

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: February 6, 2009


By the time in which John Rawls' A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971, utilitarianism was the dominant philosophical conception. In a nutshell, the main aim of utilitarianism is to maximize aggregate welfare in society. For utilitarianism, the way in which such welfare is distributed among individuals is irrelevant: it does not matter whether a few have most of the resources available and most people have virtually nothing as long as that distribution is the best one from the perspective of the total amount of global welfare. A Theory of Justice can be seen as a reaction against this view. For Rawls, that unequal outcome is intuitively unacceptable. In clear contrast to utilitarianism, Rawls claims that both social inequalities, such as poverty and natural inequalities, such as differences in talents, are unjust and, thus, nobody is morally entitled to what those inequalities yield. Since Rawls' first book, most of the discussions in contemporary political philosophy shifted to the question of how to better understand these egalitarian premises. This is why A Theory of Justice remains the most influential book in political philosophy written in the last century.

Rawls' book gave rise to a first wave of egalitarian thought mainly concerned with what should be equalized. The main candidates for equalization were material resources, welfare, and opportunities. The first wave of egalitarian thought had liberal roots. Those origins imply that, although equality is important, the different egalitarian frameworks proposed are very respectful of individual choices. In other words, the theoretical agenda dealt with how to express concern of individual responsibility and equality at the same time. A second wave of egalitarian thought left behind the concern for what should be equalized and focused on a different sort of claim, not so obviously connected with economic inequality. This second strand is interested in those claims carried out by minority groups regarding cultural, racial, and gender inequalities. This wave gave raise to recognition claims that rest on the idea that inequalities refer not so much to the distributions of goods as to marginalization, domination and cultural imperialism.

It is still unclear what the connections between these two waves of egalitarian thought are. The aim of this paper, then, is to review critically both strands of egalitarian theories and find plausible connections between them. The paper is divided into two main parts. In the first part of the paper, we will concentrate on the family of liberal egalitarian theories, usually called luck egalitarianism because of their emphasis on the fact that differences arising from mere luck, that is, differences in social and natural inequalities, are unjust. The second part of the paper deals with recognition claims. We will then discuss how these two versions of egalitarian thought relate to each other and whether endorsing one of them implies ruling out the other.

Keywords: equality, luck egalitarianism, politics of difference, theories of equality, Rawls, Young

Suggested Citation

Hevia, Martin and Colón-Ríos, Joel I., Contemporary Theories of Equality: A Critical Review (February 6, 2009). Revista Juridica Universidad de Puerto Rico, Vol. 74, p. 131, 2005; Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 15/2013. Available at SSRN:

Martin Hevia

Universidad Torcuato Di Tella ( email )

Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 7350
Buenos Aires, C1428BCW
5411-5169-7185 (Phone)


Joel I. Colón-Ríos (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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