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What makes a fair and equal society?

Everyone wants to live in a fair and equal society. This post discusses what makes one society fairer or more equal than another.

Ever since Aristotle there has been general agreement that every society should aim for equality and fairness. There’s less agreement about what these terms mean or how they should be measured. But there are good reasons for trying to define equality and fairness properly — not only would strict definitions allow us to mathematically measure the extent of equality and fairness accurately, but they would also let us establish whether a society really upholds them.

Equality, fairness and egalitarianism1 are, if taken literally, misleading goals for a society. The most obvious problem with equality, for instance, is that people are naturally unequal: they have different heights, different personality traits, and have varying likes and dislikes. What’s needed is a way to establish if a particular ‘aspect’ or ‘asset’ of society should be enforced as equal by law over all its members. One suggestion on how to decide which assets to equalise was proposed by the American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls argued that if a group of people were designing a new society from scratch, without knowing in advance what their position in it would be (without knowing if they were going to be born rich, well-connected, beautiful, popular or clever etc), they would rationally decide that at least some characteristics and assets of society — like freedom, laws and opportunities — should be the same for everyone. They’d do this because they would want to maximise their chances of being happy and fulfilled, regardless of their as-yet-unspecified social circumstances.

Rawls described individuals in this hypothetical circumstance (of not knowing their own or each other’s positions in society) as being under a veil of ignorance. He called the imaginary situation where people agree how society’s assets should be distributed, while under the veil of ignorance, the original position. Despite the fact that this situation could never actually happen in a society, Rawls argued that the original position might shed light on what actual laws should be2 , because it might be possible to predict what individuals would want to be equal in. Indeed, assuming that all individuals in a society are rational, there could only be one optimal solution — that which would maximise each and every individual’s chances of happiness and fulfilment.

Working out the optimal solution for distributing assets is a complicated endeavour. Contemporaries of Rawls try to predict how people would act in the original position (and thus predict the optimal distribution of assets) by using behavioural science (such as game theory) and probability maths, approaches which require accurate understandings of human behaviour. Yet with even an incomplete model of human behaviour, Rawls’ notion of the original position allows us to investigate how distributable assets might best be shared. For instance, would rational people want to share every single asset of society equally? While such a principle might at first appear rational, it’s not clear if this is actually the case. Monetary wealth and happiness, for instance, are probably not among the things anyone would agree to distribute evenly. This is because one might not want to give one’s fellow citizens the same proportion of money or happiness in case they don’t equally deserve it. This leads to a rejection of strict egalitarianism, the principle which argues that all society’s commodities should be distributed equally to each member. Strict egalitarianism is one of many competing alternative ways to allocate society’s assets among its members, known collectively as principles of distributive justice.  Under a different distributive justice principle, you and your fellow citizens might decide that an individuals choices (like hard work and effort) are what should determine the allocation of things like wealth. Rationally, you might decide that, once in society (and other things like law and opportunity being equal), you will potentially obtain more assets under this principle than if you had agreed to divvy up all assets equally, provided you make the effort to work hard.

This stance not only allows us to define ‘equality’, but also ‘fairness’. A fair society refers to any society where a principle of distributive justice has been agreed, and is thereafter enforced. The big question then is what principle of distributive justice to agree on (and in the process, discovering which, if any, assets should be distributed equally). There are compelling arguments for the many different principles put forward by philosophers (including from Rawls himself) but so far none is thought of as definitive. Yet we can make a number of general conclusions about what the optimal principle should look like without agreeing on it exactly. To start with, although philosophers and economists argue over the rationality of allocating assets like wealth equally (since it is arguably unfair by benefiting people who don’t deserve it), they are in almost universal agreement that assets such as voting rights, legal rights, freedom and the opportunity to earn wealth and happiness should always be allocated equally (with a couple of important exceptions3).

We can be reasonably sure, therefore, that societies equal in such assets are fairer than those that are not. This is a good start. Most principles of distributive justice intrinsically support equality in education, opportunity, voting rights, legal rights and freedom (beliefs this website reflects through its egalitarianism tenet). Having worked out what people should be equal in, deciding how to enforce this equality is the next problem. In the next post we’ll examine the ways to measure and enforce the most challenging of these assets: opportunity.

1 Lit. belief in the equality of people

2 In philosophical terms, many social contract theories, like that found in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), are descriptive (in that they aim to describe how and why a society’s assets are distributed as they are), whereas Rawls’ is normative, in that it reaches conclusions about how assets ought to be distributed 

One of which is that by common consent it is agreed that these rights should be temporarily suspended if you break the law. Likewise, certain circumstances in life will rob you of some of these rights: a coma can stop you from voting.


  • ‘Ever since Aristotle…’ (Politics, 336-22bce)
  • ‘…belief in the equality of people…’ Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2010)
  • Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice, Belknap (1971)
  • Hobbes, T. Leviathan (1651)