I, for one, believe that inequality is bad. But do I really think that there is some respect in which a world where only some are blind is worse than one where all are? Yes. Does this mean I think it would be better if we blinded everybody? No.’1

International human rights law instruments (as well as national constitutions) are all saturated with the principle of ‘equality’. However, ‘equality’ as an ideal is not quite easy to grasp. In fact, ‘equality’ as a state or situation, has troubled jurists and political theorists for ages. Some say there is intrinsic value in equality— while others say there isn’t.  In this essay, I argue that inequality does not matter in itself (ie there are no intrinsic ills or badness in inequality and therefore, no intrinsic value or goodness in equality). Just as I start off with this somewhat apparently non-egalitarian2 statement, someone who is quintessentially egalitarian (ie one who believes inequality is bad in itself)3 may rightfully want to know how I conceptualise ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’. They may also want to know how I conceptualise ‘equality’, to begin with. Some clarifications are therefore in order. 

For purposes of this essay, ‘equality’ is understood in both distributivist and relational (implying that individuals in the society ought to relate to one another as equals in relevant aspects, for equality as a state to obtain) sense.

Next, for the purposes of this essay, I conceptualise ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ in the normative sense of individual well-being. According to Raz, ‘the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from its contribution (either actual or possible) to human life and its quality’.4 Building upon this thought,5 I will show in this essay that inequality matters (or is bad) when it militates against human well-being.6 Therefore, the approach that I adopt is egalitarian, but in an instrumentalist and relational sense. This may read verbose at this stage, but as we go forward, it will make more sense. 

The essay proceeds in two broad parts. At first, with the help of one illustration, I try to add flesh to my core claim (ie inequality does not matter in itself), while also dealing with, what I dub, quintessentially egalitarian objections in passing. Next, in the second part, I try to address pure prioritarian,7 (and related sufficiency-based) observations having a bearing on (if not directly countering) my core claim. 

By and large, there are two threads that bind this essay: I. Inequality does not matter in itself. II. Inequality does matter when it militates against individual well-being (ie when the absence of equality impinges on different kinds of entitlements (eg deliberative freedom, access to goods or services) in coalescence with social statuses.

Fleshing out the core claim: A case for instrumental egalitarianism 

Hypothetical scenario (I will call it G throughout the essay): In country P, there are two major communities (X and Y). X is a privileged community both in terms of economic strengths and social dominance— while Y is a community that has historically been economically vulnerable, underprivileged, and discriminated against on grounds of ethnic identity, among others. Being marginalized within the marginalized, women, queers, and persons with disabilities within community Y are subjected to intersectional forms of discrimination. A legislation ensuring access to healthcare services (with respect to certain rare diseases equally prevalent among members of both the communities) categorically says that it applies only to community X. Thus, the said legislation in country P treats X and Y differently/unequally and thereby leaves community Y badly off.  Also, important to mention, Y community does not have healthcare protection under any similar legislation or policy.

The questions that follow from this illustration for the current essay are these: Does the state of inequality matter in itself in situation G? In other words, is the state of inequality as canvassed in G, inherently, essentially, and intrinsically bad? While a quintessentially egalitarian person would say ‘yes’, my answer, as assumable from the introduction, is ‘no’.

The inequality in G can be done away with, by extending the protection of the healthcare legislation to everyone, regardless of their communitarian identity. In this case, thus, inequality can be eliminated with levelling-up measures (levelling-up because we are upping our efforts to bring in equality). At this stage, it may seem as if inequality were inherently bad, since equality brought about by adopting levelling-up measures, changes the overall situation for the better for everyone and potentially contributes to individual well-being, relevant things considered. 

However, inequality in G, can also be done away with, by denying community X the said healthcare services. In a way, denying X their required access to healthcare services (and thereby levelling down) too, would make the situation equal for everyone concerned. However, this measure would leave everyone, including people from community X, equally badly off. 

Thus, equality as consequence of levelling-up would render everyone equally well-off; however, equality as consequence of levelling-down would render everyone equally badly-off.8 What remains constant in both post- levelling-up and post-levelling-down, is the state of equality, and what changes is the material well-being of the individuals involved. This shows that equality does not matter in itself or changes things for the better, rather equality, in contributing to the material well-being of people, who are otherwise worse off, does so. 

In a similar vein, prior to levelling-up or levelling-down, in G, it is not inequality in itself, rather the state of inequality militating against the material well-being of people from Y community— that matters. 

Thus, inequality matters, but in an instrumentalist sense. 

Besides the example given above, provisions for affirmative actions can be illustrative too. Affirmative actions are unequal measures often directed at marginalized groups: providing unequal access of goods, services, or opportunities for the subjects to exercise deliberative freedom, among others. However, the inequality that affirmative action programs give birth to, is not bad in itself because it is connected with, all relevant things considered, individual material well-being of those who are historically oppressed, underprivileged, or worse-off than others. 

Dealing with the Prioritarians: Unpacking relational instrumental egalitarianism

In the previous section, I tried to show that inequality matters, not in itself but while militating against individual material well-being. Tweaking the assertion, we can say, equality matters, not in itself but while in contributing to material well-being. 

At this stage, prioritarians would ask the very point of coopting the terms ‘inequality’ and ‘equality’, and not ‘priority’ per se. For instance, when we provide healthcare services to community Y as of right, we prioritize the ones that are worst off— not worse off as such from a relational perspective (in relation to community X), the prioritarians would say. Derek Parfit, as a prioritarian would perhaps advance his famous example of the mountaineers. Parfit would say, mountaineers while at the peak of the mountains do not find it difficult to breathe because they are higher up than others (i.e., on an inequal position in relation to others), but because of the simple reason that they are at the peak. The mountaineers would find it difficult to breathe, even if there were no one below them.9 In a similar vein, prioritarians would say, community Y is in need of protection not because they are worse-off than community X, but only because they are at a lower absolute level. Our reason to support them would be the same even if community X were no better off. Therefore, ultimately, it is not the state of equality or inequality which matters (even instrumentally, as we argue). It is rather the benefits or their lack, that should and do in fact, count. However, it is not as straightforward as it may seem. 

In G, we can certainly say that our reason to support community Y would be the same even if X were no better off. But can we think of their material well-being, all relevant things considered, without being relational? Is it only about access to healthcare? Is it not about equal access in relation to all others as well? It in fact is. We cannot but consider equality and inequality, if we want to think of the material well-being of people who are worst off in this scenario. In G, in fact, it is also about recognizing the specific needs and vulnerabilities of community Y on equal terms with those of community X. Hence, it is relational instrumental egalitarianism, that matters. 

This can be further substantiated in the next section.

Equality or Sufficiency?

At this point, yet another relevant concern would be that of sufficiency. Is equality even important if/when everyone fares sufficiently? Does equality even instrumentally matter when there is sufficient well-being for everyone? In the words of Raz and Frankfurt, what is important is not that everyone should have the same but that everyone has enough.10 But the question is— can it be the case that everyone has enough of what they need, if others have much more?11 Therefore, as Marmor says, what is sufficient, needs also to be drawn from the relational statuses of everyone involved.12 Hence, inequality does matter in the end. For instance, in G, the sufficiency condition can be met if a law is enacted to allow people from community Y to access the said healthcare services, but in specified urban clinics only (while for community X, the services are made available across the entire country P) (let’s call this G1). Here, while it may seem or be deemed sufficient, it would still continue to further inequality between community X and Y with regard to accessing/availing required healthcare services. 

To unpack the foregoing, G1 shows us that we still need to care about equality because otherwise, the inequality in question will potentially continue to militate against the material well-being of all persons involved. Access to required healthcare in specified urban clinics only will inevitably fall short on being accessible and/or acceptable to everyone and will not be able to contribute to the material well-being of all members of community Y (especially, in relation to X who shall have more, and not equal access to the said services— both in rural and urban settings). The state of inequality will therefore still continue to be an issue. 

Therefore, inequality matters— albeit in a relational— instrumental— egalitarian sense.


In this essay, I first show that inequality does not matter in itself. I primarily do so with the help of the levelling down objection. Next, I try to argue that inequality has instrumental badness as it militates against the material well-being of people. While offering a case for relational instrumental egalitarianism, I try to tackle possible counterarguments from the perspectives of prioritarianism (and connectedly, sufficiency).  

  1.  Larry Temkin, Inequality (OUP 1993) 282.
  2.  I say ‘apparently’ because mine surely is not a non-egalitarian approach. I will show below and throughout the essay why I say so. 
  3. Arneson, Richard, ‘Egalitarianism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/egalitarianism/>; Also see, Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve, ‘Why it matters that some are worse off than others: An argument against the priority view’ (2009) Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(2) 71-199.
  4. Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (OUP 1986) 194. ↩︎
  5. We do not entirely adopt Raz’s conception of equality here in toto
  6. To further clarify, mine is not a utilitarian approach that believes in maximizing overall aggregate of wellbeing. It is rather subjective and considers each individual well-being separately. 
  7. By pure prioritatians, I mean those who value well-being but do not value equality directly (ie they do not think it is necessary to approach well-being in relational/comparative terms). 
  8. For levelling-down objection, see Deborah Brake, ‘When Equality Leaves Everyone Worse Off: The Problem of Levelling Down in Equality Law’ (2004) 46 William and Mary Law Review 513. 
  9. Derek Parfit, Another Defence of Priority View, (2012) 24(3) Utilitas 402; Derek Parfit, ‘Equality and Priority’ (1997) 10 Ratio 202. 
  10.  Harry Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ (1987) 98 Ethics 21 reprinted in The Importance of What We Care About (CUP 1988) 134; Harry Frankfurt, ‘Equality and Respect’ (1997) 64 Social Research 3, 3; Joseph Raz (n 1) 240.
  11. Andrei Marmor, ‘The Intrinsic Value of Economic Equality’, in Lukas H. Meyer, Stanley L. Paulson & Thomas Winfried Menko Pogge (eds), Rights, Culture, and the Law: Themes from the Legal and Political Philosophy of Joseph Raz (Oxford University Press 2003) 127.
  12. Ibid.