Political Egalitarianism

Social Theory and Practice 34 (4):485-516 (2008)
The term “political” egalitarianism is used here, not to refer to equality within the political sphere, but rather in John Rawls’s sense, to refer to a conception of egalitarian distributive justice that is capable of serving as the object of an overlapping consensus in a pluralistic society.1 Thus “political” egalitarianism is political in the same way that Rawls’s “political” liberalism is political. The central task when it comes to developing such a conception of equality is to determine what constraints a principle of equality must satisfy in order to qualify as “freestanding,” or to be justifiable in a way that does not presuppose the correctness of any one member of the set of reasonable yet incompatible “religious, philosophical and moral” doctrines that attract large numbers of adherents in our world.2 (Rawls uses the analogy of a “module” in order to describe the way that a properly political conception of justice “fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it.”3 Political egalitarianism would be “modular” in this sense.) Rather than getting embroiled in the controversies that have arisen over Rawls’s formulation of this idea, I would like simply to accept the intuition, widespread among political philosophers, that equality is the sort of principle that – if given a proper formulation – could satisfy the requirements of a political conception of justice. After all, regardless of what peoples’ projects, values, or conceptions of the good life may be, it should be possible to design a set of arrangements that would provide equal opportunity to pursue these goals, or that would treat each conception of the good with equal respect, etc. From this perspective, the principle of equality resembles the principle of Pareto-efficiency, or certain formulations of the principle of liberty – it is one that everyone should be able to endorse, insofar as it does not privilege, or presuppose the correctness of, any particular set of projects, values..
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