Equality and Social Justice

Equality and social justice

Linked to equality of opportunity is a belief that the state should embody justice: there must be an assumption that it will treat individuals fairly, or justly, without regard to their ‘identity’ (as defined, for example, by their occupation, religion, gender or ethnicity). As a result, individuals within the liberal state must be able to assume a just outcome from any complaints they express and therefore a satisfactory resolution to any grievances they have with other individuals.

Liberals place emphasis on equality of opportunity, the idea that each person should have the same chance to rise or fall in society. Liberals accept differing outcomes because people have different abilities and potential. They should be free to reach that potential.

Traditionally liberalism is based on a belief in foundational equality — people are born equal. This implies a belief in formal equality: individuals should enjoy the same legal and political rights in society, ensured by equality before the law and equal voting rights in free and fair elections.

Socialists criticise liberalism on the grounds that it does not tackle inequality because it is closely linked to the capitalist idea of competition. Instead, socialists aim to achieve equality of outcome by using the power of the state to redistribute wealth. However, classical liberals believe that individuals with different talents should be rewarded differently. The resulting social inequality is beneficial for society because it gives people an incentive to work hard and make the most of their abilities. The good society is a meritocracy — one in which social position is determined by ability and effort. For example William Gladstone, the British Liberal Prime Minister, introduced competitive examinations for entry to the civil service in the 18705, bringing to an end the practice of making appointments on the basis of aristocratic connections.

Until the 20th century liberals did not all extend the same rights to women as to men. The early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) argued that women were no less rational beings than men, so were entitled to the same rights to pursue a career and to own their own property when married — something the law prohibited at the time. Modern liberals support full civil rights for women and minority groups. For example, US President Barack Obama supported the right of transgender pupils to use bathrooms of their choice at school.

There are different views within liberalism on equality. Most modern liberals favour some degree of state intervention to narrow social inequalities. They believe that true equality is not possible without social justice. However, they do not believe that total equality of outcome is either possible or desirable. John Rawls (1921-2002), author of A Theory of Justice (1971), is known for attempting to reconcile the concepts of liberal individualism with the prevention of excessive inequality.