Foundational Equality / Formal Equality

The liberal view of equality is based upon a strong belief in foundational and formal equality. Liberals believe that people are ‘born’ equal in the sense that they are of equal moral worth. Foundational equality implies a belief in formal equality, the idea that individuals should enjoy the same formal status in society, particularly in terms of the distribution of rights and entitlements. The most important forms of formal equality are legal and political equality, ensured by ‘equality before the law’ and a system of one person, one vote at election time. In addition, liberals believe in equality of opportunity, the idea that each person should have the same chance to rise or fall in society. The game of life must thus be played on an even playing field.

Formal equality involves equal status for all members of society regardless of social background i.e. liberals are ‘difference blind'.

Formal Equality is the view that formal rules should not exclude individuals from achieving certain goals by making reference to personal characteristics that are arbitrary, such as race, socio-economic class, gender, religion and sexuality. In addition, Formal Equality of Opportunity might forbid the identification of proper names, gender or age in job applications. Formal Equality is incompatible with segregating workplaces or schools along racial or gender classifications . There should be no rule which gives anyone a unique advantage or disadvantage.


This creates a problem since it means in principle that all employment roles should be equally open to everyone, yet most people would accept that there can be some levels of discrimination for example that the job of taxi driver might be limited to people who can drive. The tension between a socially liberal aspiration for formal equality and the restrictions necessary to fulfill some roles was used for comic effect by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore One legged man auditions for role as Tarzan.


However, liberals consider Formal equality to be an important principle since the relaxation of formal rules against discrimination can be exploited to create indirect discrimination- for example a 'no beards' might be used to exclude Sikh men.

Another criticism is that formal equality does not prevent inequality of outcome. It may be formally true according to the rules that anyone, over 35 born in the USA, can become president but there are informal social and economic obstacles to women, ethnic minorities and the poor. Also if the legal system is formally equal it dose not take in to account inequalities in society such as prejudice against minorities or the significance of social conditions such as poverty or family, so although in principle just should be blind it would be an injustice if it did not 'see' the difference in gender, race and wealth.

The term Substantive equality is used to mean measures which seek to achieve equality by overcoming cultural and economic barriers through positive discrimination and affirmative action- e.g accepting lower grades for university places from applicants from social groups who may suffer discrimination.Fisher v Texas (2013)

Modern liberals tend to support policies aimed to achieve substantive equality and libertarian liberals tend to oppose these measures since they see them as undermining meritocracy and free competition.