Equality vs. Justice-or 50 Shades/Types of Equality?


At our last meetup the team seemed to think that there was still much to be said about the concept of 'equality' as it proved to be a bit slippery-and in fact perhaps the opposite of 'Justice.'

Kurt's example got  us energized: In a society where the law was racist ( for example, restrictions against blacks riding in the front seats of a bus in Selma, Alabama in the 1950s) would the equal application of that law be right and proper?

For example,  should all bus drivers who ignored the law  be fired under the principle that equality of the law demands it? No bus driver should be treated 'special' in  other words because that would violate the principle of equality.

We are going to compare Equality to Justice, and then look at different 'shades' or varieties of equality to see if there is any way to define 'Equality' such that it overlaps with 'justice,' or at least can be linked to 'justice'-unlike the drastic example above that draws a radical distinction between the two concepts.

This is going to be a 'return-to-our roots' meetup as Socrates, and later Plato, began the western philosophical conversation with an effort to define 'justice.'


As we recall, we discussed  the prominent role that differences played in the election as opposed to equality. We then asked does that mean that 'equality' and 'justice'  are irreconcilable?


Our dilemma was: If there is too much emphasis placed on difference, then did the election signal that  equality is dying -or dead? And if equality was dying or dead, then what about 'justice' in this county? Is not an 'unequal' society an 'unjust' society? Or are they different? Could 'inequalities' be reconciled with a broader common good- the larger 'just' and fair society.

I Plato's Two Flavors of Equality-and Reconciliation of Justice with Equality and Differences.

a. Equality as Pre-Existing Knowledge.

His first version is an answer to the question: How Do We Know that Things are Unequal?

In Plato's dialogue Phaedo there is this argument as outlined in this online summary:


  1. We never experience (in sense-perception) objects that are really, precisely, equal, and
  2. We must already have the concept of equality in order to judge the things we encounter in sense-perception to be approximately, imperfectly, equal.

This has been called by one thinker 'impoverished stimuli.' The external world's sensory input is conceptually barren: we understand it only by benefit of a priori knowledge, that is knowledge that exists prior to empirical experience.

This in itself does not seem to give us any clue to any particular meaning of 'justice'-though it might give us some leads to finding some meaning.


b.Equality as Equal Opportunity (possibly linked to 'Justice').

Plato's model for the Ideal Just State ( presented as a long digression in The Republic in order to answer the question 'What is Justice?') rejects the view that apparent 'differences' between men and women should preclude women from leadership roles in a truly Just State. Modern defenders of women's rights to equal education and justice find Plato highly supportive.

Plato bases his argument for the equality of women and men as both potentially leaders in the Ideal Justice State on Dualism,the Soul-Body distinction: differences between male and female bodies do not mean that their souls are different. It seems like Plato's doctrine of a pre-existing concept may be implicit here: 'Equality' is not derived from empirical experience of gender differences but from the mind/soul that is capable of understanding 'equality' outside these empirical differences.


c Reconciliation of Justice,Differences and Equality in Plato

Yet Plato argues that the Ideal Justice State also recognizes differences. In fact, Justice occurs when each part of society -differing in their respective talents and capabilities- are properly fulfilling their functions according to their aptitudes. Plato believed in the overarching common good not in a society of isolated individuals functioning without regard to other individuals-and trying to do each other's jobs. In other words he was against 'multi-tasking.'

Each class in the ideal just society ( leaders, military, traders and other  individual citizens who are not leaders or military) are specialists  in that do not encroach on the other class's function.

This makes their roles unequal but also ensures that they are equally protected under the ethos of the common good rather than suffering from disruption when the social unit collapses. If one part of society tries to usurp the functions of the other parts, then injustices are created, according to Plato.  Plato finds that the Ideally Just State combines a recognition of differences with equal protection under the aegis of the public good.


II John Rawls: Equality, Justice and the 'Difference Principle.'

On the other end of the historical spectrum, modern American philosopher John Rawls  also sought to reconcile Equality, Differences and Justice.

Rawls sees a sense of justice as an attribute people normally have; it “would appear to be a condition for human sociability". Like Plato, Rawls rejects a society of purely self-interested individuals as capable of being a just society. He understands Justice and Equality in a broader social sense though he is not a socialist per se.

He rejects the idea, popular in extensions of economic theory, that people are motivated only by self-interest in all that they do; he also rejects the Hobbesian assumption that a willingness to do justice must be grounded in self-interest.

It is essential to Rawls's argument for the feasibility and stability of justice as fairness, that the parties upon entering society have an effective sense of justice, and that, as members of society, they are capable of doing what justice requires of them for its own sake.

Like Plato, he also sees that differences and inequalities can exist within a just and fair society without making the whole unjust:  A key concept for Rawls is the Difference Principle: it permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. Inequalities can actually be just on Rawls' view, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off as noted. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family one is born into) shouldn't determine one's life chances or opportunities.

Both Plato and Rawls then argue that Justice and Equality are not the same thing. However, they do overlap. Plato and Rawls find a role for differences without accepting absolute inequality as the norm as racists and bigots have. Do their insights help us determine whether equality is dying in America-or if it is does it mean that Justice will also die?





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  • A former member
    A former member

    It was a lively and very interesting discussion. It doesn't seem that we reached any consensus on the topic, but everyone expressed themselves freely with or without passion according to their own nature, and we shared our different opinions, which didn't mean that we agreed on much..... Everyone came with their own certainties and left with them.... It would be interesting to see if some of us added to their own beliefs or convictions, ideas they didn't have or didn't agree with before the meeting. I personally agree with the idea that equality is a process rather than an end in itself, a process toward an ideal that humanity will never and cannot reach (for many different reasons shared at the meeting) , but it is a motor that entices us to exhibit fairness toward each other ....

    December 16, 2012

  • Craig Y.

    In Plato he used the Greek word "Dikaisyne" for justice which comes very near to the work 'morality' or 'righteousness'. Social justice is a social consciousness(which to Plato, virtuous men possess, that makes a society internally harmonious and good. (This is not unlike Confucius for virtuous aristocratic men(sons of kings). And Mencius talked about righeous, conscience and justice(including the right to rebel.))
    Since Plato was so distressed with the laws in a democracy at his time, the idea of justice under the public law did not seem appealing to him. We say equality of opportunities (not just for the rich or nobler) and equality for treatment in front of the law for punishment and merit awards before a transparent set of rules seem to be a modern concept.

    December 15, 2012

  • Yacov H.

    equalising rights often ends up becoming a transfer of rights from one person to another. for example; if black people gain power and authority under affirmative action and themselves practice racism against people who are not like themselves it is a transfer, not an equalising of rights. Equality in the legal sense overlooks the human nature of self-supremacy.

    December 15, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    There is an an interesting website "Moral egalitarianism " about the topic we will tackle Sunday: http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-eg/';
    the first sentence: " Egalitarianism is the position that equality is central to justice." I let you read the rest.
    one other thought that had bothered me since the meeting has been annouced ( Because in the meantime I happened to watch a documentary on Thomas Jefferson) :Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of independence wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,.....",; this same great man, has also claimed that colored people were inferior in mind and body, indirectly stating that justice doesn't apply equally to them.
    Are not Equality, as well as Justice context (social and cultural) dependent as there are always been many shades of the notion of equality, and consequently of justice across social statuses and world countries?

    December 15, 2012

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