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In the context of the social sciences, the concept of equality refers sometimes to certain properties which men are held to have in common but more often to certain treatments which men either receive or ought to receive. Traditional characterizations of kinds of treatment as either egalitarian or inegalitarian often turn out to be disguised value judgments or empty statements. It is possible, however, to find descriptive criteria apt to capture the egalitarian and inegalitarian features of principles which have been advocated at different times.

Equality of characteristics. Equality must be construed here in the sense of similarity, that is, of agreement in certain properties. That men are equal means that men share some qualities; these must be specified. Men are evidently unequal in many characteristics. There are natural differences (sex, color, character traits, natural endowments, etc.) and institutional variations (citizenship, religion, social rank, etc.). Other properties are common to all but in varying amounts (age, strength, intelligence, possessions, power, etc.). To claim that all men are equal in such respects can only mean that the resemblances are in some way more significant than the differences, as when Hobbes states that “nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body and mind” that the weakest can kill the strongest and no one can outwit the other.

Men are sometimes held to be equal in the sense of having a common “human nature”-a tautological assertion, unless it is specified that all are naturally good or sinful or that they have the same basic motives (say, self-interest), or common basic needs, or similar capacities to feel pleasure and pain, or the same ability to act deliberately and to choose rationally.

Equality of treatment. Moralists ever since the Stoics have claimed that men, in spite of differences of character or intelligence, are of equal dignity, worth, or desert. Statements of this kind are to be interpreted in a normative sense, to the effect that all men are entitled to be treated equally. The same applies to the allegation that all men have the same moral or natural rights. To say that I have a moral right implies that others should let me exercise it (whereas to have a legal right means that it is conferred by positive law). Thus, Locke interprets his own statement “that men by nature are equal” as referring, not to “all sorts of equality,” since men differ as to “age or virtue,” but to “the equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom”; this means that men “should also be equal amongst another,” that is, that they should be given the corresponding legal rights. Analogously, to claim that those of one nation or race or class are “superior” to all others is to hold that they ought to receive preferential treatment.

Whether individuals or groups are, in fact, treated equally or unequally by others depends on the way in which benefits or burdens are allotted to them. These may be legal rights (e.g., to own property, to vote) and legal duties (e.g., to respect the rights of others); material benefits (e.g., wages, unemployment benefits, social services) and liabilities (e.g., punishment, taxation, military service); and opportunities (e.g., to hold certain positions or offices).

Factual statements about equality may be about equality of either characteristics or treatment. Normative statements about equality are always concerned with treatment but may contain references to characteristics as well, as when it is being argued that men should be treated equally because they are equal in certain characteristics. References to both characteristics and treatment are also contained in general rules of the type: all persons having a certain characteristic are to be allotted a certain benefit or burden (in such and such an amount). This leads to the question of how to determine whether an actual or proposed kind of treatment is egalitarian.

Traditional criteria of egalitarianism

(1) Impartiality. Equal treatment means, first of all, the impartial allocation of some benefit or burden by one actor to another, say, by a judge to a claimant. Equality before the law thus means impartial application of the law. Allocations are impartial or partial only by reference to a rule of allocation. With respect to a specified legal or moral rule, a person is treated impartially by another provided his allotment is determined exclusively by the rule itself and not by other factors, such as the latter person’s like or dislike of the former. Partiality (allotments made in violation of some given rule) would be the only kind of inegalitarian treatment in this sense. Since any rule—for example, one restricting suffrage to adult citizens or to white citizens—can be applied impartially or partially, we must determine the conditions under which rules themselves are to be considered egalitarian.

(2) Equal shares to all. According to the utilitarians, “everybody [is] to count for one, nobody for more than one” in the allocation of benefits and burdens—not of every conceivable kind, of course, but of certain specified types. Similarly, “equality” to the French revolutionaries meant that the same basic legal rights should be granted by every government to all its citizens. Rules which allocate a benefit or burden in equal amounts to everyone are undoubtedly egalitarian.

(3) Equal shares to equals. Most rules of allocation grant equal shares of some kind, not to all generally but to all who are equal with respect to some property; for example, all adult citizens have the right to vote; whoever commits a certain crime shall suffer a certain punishment; persons within the same income bracket are liable to the same income tax. According to the previous criterion, such rules would not be egalitarian. The concept of egalitarianism has therefore been enlarged to cover rules which allot “equal shares to equals”; and a rule is considered inegalitarian by Aristotle “when either equals are awarded unequal shares or unequals equal shares.”

Now, every rule may be considered egalitarian in this sense; for a rule stipulates that all, or else that only those who are equal in a specified respect, receive the same specified treatment. Universal suffrage means that the right to vote is given to all adult citizens but not to minors and aliens. A graduated income tax treats any two taxpayers within the same bracket equally and any two within different brackets unequally. To treat all whites alike and all Negroes alike but persons of different color differently is to practice racial discrimination. Every conceivable rule treats equals (in some specified respect) equally and unequals unequally.

(4 ) Proportional equality. To narrow down the criterion again, unequal allotments have been held, ever since Aristotle, to be egalitarian if and only if they satisfy the requirement of “proportional equality.” A rule is generally considered to satisfy this requirement if it provides that the amount of benefit or burden is a monotonically increasing function of the specified characteristic; that is, the more of the characteristic, the more benefit or burden. And any two persons are treated “in proportion to their inequality,” provided the difference in the amount allotted to each is similarly correlated to the degree in which they differ in the characteristic specified by the rule. But again, any rule which allots “equal shares to equals” implicitly not only allots “unequal shares to unequals” but also allots them “in proportion to their inequality.” Both rules-“to each according to his need” and “to each according to his height”—assign different shares to different persons in the proportion in which they differ as to need or as to height. A flat rate and a graduated income tax both fulfill the requirement of proportional equality.

(5) Unequal shares corresponding to relevant differences. Inequality in allotment has been held to be egalitarian provided it is based on relevant differences in personal characteristics. Thus, age and citizenship are relevant to voting rights but not so sex or race or wealth; it is therefore held egalitarian to limit the franchise to adult citizens but inegalitarian to restrict it to men or whites or poll-tax payers. Wealth is relevant to taxation; hence, a graduated income tax is viewed as egalitarian but not a sales tax, which disregards this relevant criterion by taxing poor and wealthy buyers at the same rate.

Judgments to the effect that characteristic x is relevant to treatment y are valuational, not factual. That color is not relevant to voting but age is means that it is unjust to base the franchise on color and just to require a minimum age. Equality becomes tantamount to distributive justice: “The unjust is unequal, the just is equal” (Aristotle); that is, it is unjust to make unequal awards to those who share a relevant characteristic. Or, in a recent formulation: to be egalitarian, “a difference of treatment requires justification in terms of relevant and sufficient differences between the claimants” (Ginsberg 1965, p. 79; italics added). The same purely normative criterion underlies the idea of “equality of consideration,” that is, “that none shall be held to have a claim to better treatment than another, in advance of good grounds being produced” (Benn & Peters 1959, p. 110; italics removed). This principle is not only purely valuational but also purely procedural—compatible with whatever substantive discriminatory rule may be established on “good grounds.”

(6) To each according to his desert. According to Aristotle, a person’s desert is the only characteristic relevant to allocations. To be both egalitarian and just, these must therefore be based on proportionate equality on the basis of desert. The problem is here merely pushed a step further back, since judgments of someone’s relative desert are again valuational. Unless there are objective criteria for relevant or just or good grounds for differential treatment or for a person’s desert or worth, it is impossible to refute the racist’s counterclaim that color is relevant to franchise or that whites are of superior worth. (His claim that color is relevant to intelligence would be an empirical one and could be refuted on empirical grounds, but it is intelligence rather than color or desert which he proposes in this case as a relevant criterion for granting franchise.) According to criteria 3 and 4, every rule of allocation is egalitarian, and any rule may be considered just and hence egalitarian according to criteria 5 and 6.

Operational criteria of egalitarianism

(1) Egalitarian rules of allocation and distribution. Even advocates of racial discrimination are likely to consider it egalitarian to give preferential treatment to the needy regardless of race but inegalitarian to give it to whites regardless of need. The reason seems to be that the first policy aims at the equal satisfaction of everybody’s basic needs, while the second is incompatible with that principle. This points to a distinction which must be made between (1) rules which determine how some benefit or burden is to be allocated among persons, that is, how much of it is to be given to each or to be taken from each, and (2) rules concerning the distribution of a benefit or burden which is to result from some allocation, that is, how much each person is to have at the end.

Rules of allocation and rules of distribution may be (a) egalitarian or (b) inegalitarian. Rules of allocation are egalitarian if they allocate the same kind or amount of benefit or burden to all. Similarly, rules of distribution are egalitarian if they stipulate that all are to have equal shares. Here are some examples: (la) universal suffrage, universal head tax; (lb) suffrage only for whites, graduated income tax; (2a) political equality, equality of possessions; (2b) political inequality, inequality of possessions.

(2) Inegalitarian allocations compatible with egalitarian distributions. Egalitarian allocations often lead to egalitarian distributions and inegalitarian allocations to inegalitarian distributions. Universal suffrage promotes political equality, not so suffrage for whites only. But an egalitarian distribution does not necessarily require an egalitarian allocation. For example, to bring about an equal distribution of the holdings of A, who has 8 units, and of B, who has 2, it is necessary to take, say, 3 from A and to give 3 to B. But taking 1 from A and 1 from B would leave the previous inequality of their distribution unaffected. Egalitarian allocations may thus result in inegalitarian distributions. With respect to an egalitarian rule of distribution, a rule of allocation may be said to be egalitarian if its application is a means to, or a consequence of, the former’s implementation and inegalitarian if it is incompatible with the former. A rule of allocation which is intrinsically inegalitarian may thus be egalitarian with respect to some egalitarian rule of distribution, while an intrinsically egalitarian rule of allocation may be inegalitarian in this respect. With respect to equality (or rather, to reducing inequality) of wealth, a graduated income tax is egalitarian and a head tax is inegalitarian.

(3) Degrees of egalitarianism. A rule of allocation or of distribution may be considered more egalitarian (or less inegalitarian) than another if it insures “that a larger number of persons (or classes of persons) shall receive similar treatment in specified circumstances” (Berlin [1955-1956] 1961, p. 135)—or rather, similar preferential treatment. Universal suffrage which excludes only minors and aliens is more egalitarian than suffrage which excludes also Negroes and may therefore be considered fully egalitarian for practical purposes. Disenfranchising women is more inegalitarian than disenfranchising Negroes if the latter constitute a small segment of the population but less inegalitarian if Negroes form a large percentage.

On the basis of these purely descriptive criteria, persons with divergent value commitments can agree (or disagree) on an empirical level whether a given rule of allocation or of distribution is egalitarian and to what degree, and whether a rule of allocation is egalitarian with respect to some egalitarian rule of distribution. The resulting classification corresponds in a satisfactory way to our everyday distinctions between egalitarian and inegalitarian treatment.

Instances of egalitarianism

Equality of opportunity. Equal treatment of all in every respect was advocated by some nineteenth-century anarchists: equality of occupation (for example, intellectuals would participate in manual work), of consumption (all would eat and even dress alike), and especially of education would ultimately wipe out existing inequalities of talent and capacity. Most egalitarians, however, consider such an ultimate goal neither desirable nor possible. They realize that in every society individuals are bound to have varying degrees of ability and to hold positions that yield varying degrees of status if not of remuneration. How to match unequal individuals with unequal positions has been their central concern and equality of opportunity their principal answer. This rule deals with the distribution of access to positions in society, not with the allocation of the positions themselves. Opportunities to occupy all positions, including the most attractive ones, are to be distributed in an egalitarian way to all on a competitive basis, regardless of such differences as social status or economic resources and regardless even of differences of ability, since “the least able and the most able are given an equal start in the race for success” (Pennock 1950, p. 81). If everyone has an equal start, then the position he will occupy at the end will, in theory at least, depend exclusively on how far and how fast he runs, that is, on his own resourcefulness (but also on his luck). As the French Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed: all citizens “are equally eligible to all honors, places and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

Legal equality. “Equality of opportunity, in the broad sense of the career open to personality, is and has been the inclusive goal within which the partial goals of the special equalities have their significance” (Hofstadter 1956, p. 137). Equality of legal rights has been, historically, the first of these special equalities. Classical liberalism held that the equal distribution of opportunities required merely the equal allocation of the basic rights of “life, liberty, and property.” If legal privileges are abolished and legal rights protected, no obstacle will stand in the way of anyone’s pursuit of happiness.

Equal satisfaction of basic needs. Increasing industrialization brought about an increasing awareness that equality of opportunity cannot be achieved by the “majestic equality of the law which forbids rich and poor alike to steal bread and to sleep under bridges” (Anatole France). Equality of opportunity does presuppose the equal allotment of certain rights, but it also requires the application of another egalitarian rule of distribution, namely, equality of the satisfaction of certain basic needs, which in turn calls for an inegalitarian rule of allotment: privileges for the economically underprivileged. Indeed, those who lack the basic physical or educational necessities do not have the same opportunities to reach the higher positions as do the better endowed. To bring the former up to the general starting line, government must compensate them for these initial disadvantages by means of social legislation and social services such as minimum wages, tax exemptions, unemployment benefits, free public schools, and scholarships.

Equality of opportunity is not simply a matter of legal equality. Its existence depends, not merely on the absence of disabilities, but on the presence of abilities. It obtains in so far as, and only in so far as, each member of a community, whatever his birth, or occupation, or social position, possesses in fact, and not merely in form, equal chances of using to the full his natural endowments of physique, of character, and of intelligence. (Tawney [1931] 1965, pp. 103-104)

To condemn such inegalitarian allotment is to oppose equality of opportunity. Herbert Spencer agreed with his neoliberal opponents that “insuring to each the right to pursue within the specified limits the objects of his desires without let or hindrance is quite a separate thing from insuring him satisfaction” but insisted that the state should “confine itself to guaranteeing the rights of its members” and not “assume the role of Reliever-general to the poor.” Such advocacy of mere equality of rights had by that time become an inegalitarian policy which deprived the poor of equality of opportunity and promoted the “survival” of the wealthy at their expense.

Privileges for nobles or property owners and disabilities imposed on a particular sex, religion, or race are inegalitarian, not only in themselves but probably also with respect to any conceivable egalitarian rule of distribution. But privileges for religious, racial, or ethnic minorities may constitute an egalitarian policy when these are considered as constituting economically or socially disadvantaged groups.

Economic equality. Equality of the right of property is compatible with extreme inequality in the distribution of property. Equality of opportunity does not imply equalization of wealth either, certainly not at the end of the “race for success.” Nevertheless, to give all an equal start, some must be lifted up and others moved down. The equal satisfaction of basic needs as a precondition for equality of opportunity does require economic equality, that is, a reduction of extreme inequalities in the distribution of commodities. “By equality, we should understand, not that the degree of power and riches be absolutely identical for everybody, but that … no citizen be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself (Rousseau). “The socialist seeks a distribution of rewards, status, and privileges egalitarian enough to … equalize opportunities” (Crosland [1956] 1957, p. 113). With respect to this goal, unequal taxation of unequal incomes is egalitarian.

Common ownership of the means of production. Marx, too, realized that “one man is superior to another physically and mentally” and interpreted equality—at least in the first phase of communism —as the opportunity for each to occupy the position which corresponds to his ability. Contrary to the neoliberals and socialists, Marx believed that this goal could not be reached through a redistribution of the means of consumption (the demand for fair distribution as well as for equal rights was to him “obsolete verbal rubbish”) but only through the abolition of private control of the means of production. Their “common ownership” would eliminate the possibility of exploitation and class struggle; and “with the abolition of class distinctions, all social and political inequality arising from them would automatically disappear by itself.”

To each according to his merit. If there is equality of opportunity and if higher positions bring higher salaries, both will go to those of greater merit or ability. The result would ideally be, “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent” (Young [1958] 1959, p. 19). Unequal allocation of rewards, correlated with inequality of ability, is a consequence of equal distribution of opportunities. With respect to equality of opportunity, rewards according to merit in the sense of ability is therefore an egalitarian principle.

This is not so with rewards according to merit in the sense of desert. Plato and Aristotle held not only that people’s relative desert or moral worth can be objectively ascertained but also that “there are innate differences which fit them for different occupations” (Plato), that “a distinction is already marked, immediately at birth between those who are intended for being ruled and those who are intended to rule” (Aristotle), and between those who are “by nature” either slaves or free. Each is to be assigned the function corresponding to his pre-established desert. Aristotle’s principle of “proportional equality according to desert” is really inegalitarian, not only intrinsically but also with respect to equality of opportunity and probably every other egalitarian rule of distribution. For the same reason, all rigidly stratified societies are inegalitarian, from feudalism to the Indian caste system.

To each according to his need. Equality of opportunity does not, however, necessarily entail that rewards (as well as positions) go to each according to his ability. Marxists believe that the first stage of communism, in which means of consumption are distributed according to the work performed, will inevitably evolve, in Lenin’s words, “from formal equality to real equality, i.e., to realizing the rule: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’” Positions would still be correlated to ability, but everyone (so Marxists believe) will work spontaneously to the best of his ability even without incentives, and compensations will differ according to need, regardless of the type of work. With respect to equality of opportunity to occupy various positions, this would be another egalitarian rule of allocation.

Political equality. While some political thinkers have advocated the equalization of political power through direct democracy or predicted the abolition of political power through the withering away of the state, it is generally assumed that political power is ubiquitous and always unevenly distributed and that political equality can only mean equality of opportunity to participate in the political process. Political equality has therefore been associated with the democratic institutions of suffrage, representation, and majority rule. Early liberals did not include political rights among the basic rights to be given to all; they demanded merely that wealth should replace birth as a criterion for franchise. Extending suffrage to all property owners was originally an egalitarian demand directed against hereditary privileges of the nobility. Property qualifications for voting rights became an inegalitarian rule when it was invoked in defense of vested property interests against proponents of universal suffrage (which was not instituted in most countries until the decline of laissez-faire liberalism).

Egalitarianism and other social goals

Egalitarian rules may conflict not only with one another (for example, equality of rights and of opportunities, equality of opportunities and of welfare) but also with other social goals. The equal distribution of welfare does not necessarily lead to its maximization. The latter goal might be most effectively realized by slavery or by wage incentives to higher production far greater than would be compatible with equality of welfare and even of opportunity. Equal welfare and equal freedom, too, are competing goals, since the former goal requires government to impose greater restrictions on the freedom of economically dominant groups. Freedom of all citizens with respect to government may result in suppression of freedom of the minority of individualists by the majority of conformists. Equalization of wealth does away with the leisure class, which some consider essential to cultural development. Egalitarianism may thus lead to downward leveling and stifle individuality, diversity, and cultural excellence. Greater equality of opportunity may also generate more frustration and greater unhappiness. Political equality entails majority rule, but the majority may decide on inegalitarian policies. Both Edmund Burke and J. S. Mill were in substantial agreement as to these causal ramifications; yet, the former drew the balance in favor of inegalitarianism, while the latter espoused egalitarianism.

Inegalitarian rules are usually advocated as means to other goals, such as order, efficiency, diversity, and cultural excellence. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is more often considered intrinsically desirable and morally right. Both egalitarian and inegalitarian principles have been held demonstrably valid on the ground that they are “in agreement with nature.” That men should receive equal treatment has been taken as a normative conclusion from the factual premise that “men are equal”—unless this statement itself is interpreted in a normative sense (see above). But it has also been argued that men ought to be treated unequally because they are of unequal rank or ability or race.

Yet, normative principles cannot be derived from factual generalizations; neither equality nor inequality of characteristics entails the desirability of either egalitarian or inegalitarian treatment. There is surely no inconsistency in maintaining that men should be treated equally (e.g., as to rights) in spite of the fact that they are unequal (e.g., as to natural endowments) or that they should be treated unequally (e.g., as to salary) regardless of their common features (e.g., as to basic needs). Once the causal connections between egalitarianism or inegalitarianism and other social goals have been clarified, the adoption of one or the other of these two normative doctrines remains a matter of subjective commitment.

Felix E. Oppenheim



Benn, Stanley I.; and PETERS, RICHARD S. 1959 Social Principles and the Democratic State. London: Allen & Unwin. → See especially Chapters 5 and 6.

Berlin, Isaiah (1955-1956) 1961 Equality as an Ideal. Pages 128-150 in Frederick A. Olafson (editor), Justice and Social Policy: A Collection of Essays. Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → First published in Volume 56 of Aristotelian Society, Proceedings.

Crosland, Charles A. R. (1956) 1957 The Future of Socialism. New York: Macmillan.

Ginsberg, Morris 1965 On Justice in Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Penguin.

Hofstadter, Albert 1956 The Career Open to Personality. Pages 111-142 in Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Aspects of Human Equality: Fifteenth Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Edited by Lyman Bryson et al. New York: The Conference; Harper.

Lakoff, Sanford A. 1964 Equality in Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

PENNOCK, J. ROLAND 1950 Liberal Democracy: Its Merits and Prospects. New York: Rinehart.

PENNOCK, J. ROLAND (editor) 1967 Equality. Nomos No. 9. New York: Atherton.

Sartori, Giovanni 1962 Democratic Theory. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Praeger.

Tawney, R. H. (1931) 1965 Equality. 4th ed., rev. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Williams, Bernard (1962) 1963 The Idea of Equality. Pages 110-131 in Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (editors), Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series): A Collection. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Wollheim, Richard (1955-1956) 1961 Equality and Equal Rights. Pages 111-127 in Frederick A. Olafson (editor), Justice and Social Policy: A Collection of Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → First published in Volume 56 of Aristotelian Society, Proceedings.

Young, Michael D. (1958) 1959 The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution. New York: Random House.


Among the definitions of “equality” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary are the following three: (1) “the condition of having equal dignity, rank, or privileges with others”; (2) “the condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence”; (3) “fairness, impartiality, equity, due proportion, proportionateness.”

A moment’s contemplation will reveal that these three definitions of “equality,” although all of them are consistent with common usage, are not entirely or necessarily consistent with one another. If, for example, men are unequal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence, then an adherence to definition (3) will lead to a violation of definition (1), while an adherence to definition (1) will lead to a violation of definition (3). It is only if men are in fact equal in power, ability, and excellence that equity preserves a condition of equal rank.

But, in fact, men are not equal in power, ability, and excellence. From this it would seem to follow that justice requires a certain measure of inequality. And, indeed, in all social orders, no matter how vehement their passion for equality, we observe that some inequalities are regarded as inevitable and natural. At the same time, no egalitarian society can have an easy conscience about the inequalities within it. There is a sentiment, inchoate yet profound, that no matter how unequal men may be in their abilities, in some deeper sense all men are equal merely by virtue of being men.

The issue of legitimacy . It is certainly true that, in Western civilization at least, men have always believed that equality is in some sense the norm from which inequality represents a deviation. As Wollheim and Berlin have pointed out (1955-1956, pp. 281 ff.), the “naturalness” of the idea of equality seems to derive from the dual assumption that (a) men are all members of one species, of a simple class of objects (i.e., human beings) and (b) all members of a class should be treated uniformly, unless there is good and sufficient reason not to do so. This assumption, Berlin emphasizes, is so pervasive that it has almost the status of a category (in the Kantian sense) of human rationality:

If I have a cake, and there are ten persons among whom I wish to divide it, then if I give exactly one tenth to each, this will not, at any rate automatically, call for justification; whereas if I depart from this principle of equal division I am expected to produce a special reason. It is some sense of this, however latent, that makes equality an ideal which has never seemed intrinsically eccentric …. (ibid., p. 305)

This being the case, it is not surprising that all the golden ages, all the utopias, and all the paradises created by the human imagination are egalitarian (although not necessarily democratic—there may be an infinitely benevolent, if scrupulously egalitarian, despot). However, whereas in classical antiquity, utopia is located in word, not in deed, and in the succeeding Christian centuries it is located in transcendent hope rather than in actuality, in the modern era utopia has become an “ideal” to be realized (if never fully realized) by human effort.

For Plato, as later for Augustine and Aquinas, utopia is conceived as prehistorical, as existing prior to some primordial Fall—a catastrophe that implicates the entire human race and that sets the conditions of its destiny and its progress. The outstanding consequence of this Fall is the abolition of original equality and the establishment of the principle of hierarchy as the “natural” principle of cosmic and social order. The original, harmonious prehistorical unity is shattered, and the universe becomes subject to differentiation—soul and matter, spirit and flesh, idea and reality are now opposite poles, between which the tension of existence tries to maintain an equilibrium. The most perfect equilibrium (indeed, the only enduring one) is, obviously, that which recognizes the superiority of the noble over the base—of soul over matter, spirit over flesh, idea over actuality. The articulation of this order results in a metaphysics of hierarchy, in which both the cosmos and human society are envisaged as part of a “great chain of being,” with precedence and consequence clearly defined and with noblesse oblige and humble obedience the only two reasonable political perspectives available to the human imagination.

It requires more empathy than most twentieth century men possess to realize how utterly “natural” the idea of hierarchy came to seem to classical and medieval thinkers—and even to most modern thinkers prior to the American and French revolutions. We are inclined to view this as an antiegalitarian mode of thought, but the idea of hierarchy saw itself as containing the only feasible idea of political equality, rather than as in any way opposing equality. For equality was defined in terms of justice—of giving each man his due, so that equal men received equal rewards. That all men were not equal—and certainly not equal in all respects—was a platitude confirmed daily by the most casual observation. The hierarchical idea was accepted in good faith and good conscience by almost everyone; if we now deem it an ideology, then it was the ideology not of a class but of an entire historical epoch.

It is Shakespeare, through the sublimity of his language, who makes the older idea of hierarchy available to us better than any political philosopher. Ulysses’ speech on “degree,” in Troilus and Cressida, is the locus classicus:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place, …
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors,
Divert, and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres,
laurels, But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy… . (Act I, scene 3)

Yet even as Shakespeare wrote these lines, the planets were on their way “in evil mixture to disorder wander.” As Sanford A. Lakoff pointed out in his historical survey Equality in Political Philosophy (1964), the new astronomy replaced the cosmos with a neutral universe in which “the laws of nature” applied without distinction to heavenly and earthly bodies. Simultaneously, the rise of experimental science and the overthrow of Aristotelian teleology nullified previous distinctions between “base” and “noble” in nature—and, most especially, in human nature. Just as the new physical science declared all the parts of nature to be equal, so the new scientific (i.e., materialistic) psychology declared all the parts of man to be equal—none was intrinsically base or intrinsically noble. The denial of the superiority of spirit over matter, and of mind over body, inevitably suggested that there was no good reason for those who worked with their hands to have an inferior status compared with those whose work was nonmanual and nonmenial. In this way the philosophical foundations of modern bourgeois society were established.

Christianity itself, in the course of its several “reformations,” buttressed these new foundations (without, however, necessarily intending this result). Luther’s denial of the distinction between “spiritual” and “carnal” authorities and vocations was destructive of churchly hierarchy. The keys of St. Peter were distributed among the congregation of believers, as the monopoly of the Catholic clergy over the apostolic succession was denied and as its exclusive authority to interpret Scripture faithfully was transferred to the entire body of Christendom. Successive generations of reformers carried this antiauthoritarian impulse forward, so that Christendom itself experienced the multiplication of new self-governing and (in the literal sense of the term) self-righteous sects and denominations.

The response to inequality . But while these secular and religious trends were to create the bourgeois world, energies were being released that were to point beyond this world. Even during the Middle Ages, Christian Messianism was only with difficulty kept within the confines of the church; and as the authority of the church crumbled, this messianism became an independent spiritual and political force. The kingdom of God was transferred from a transcendental hereafter to this world, this time, this place.

It was during the English revolution of 1640-1660 that Christian Messianism first revealed its full political ambitions. There had been previous incidents, to be sure (e.g., the Anabaptist revolts in Germany), but these had as their primary aim the creation of local utopias. In contrast, the leftwing Commonwealth’s-men sought not only to transform their own national society but also to prescribe principles for all truly Christian and truly just societies. Overton, the Leveller, spoke in the recognizable accents of modernity when he said: “Every man by nature being a king, priest, prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose right and freedom it is” (Lakoff 1964, p. 65). In declarations such as these, the metaphysical foundations of egalitarian, representative self-government were firmly outlined. It required only the slightest amendment for these metaphysical foundations to be entirely secularized, with “rights” and “freedoms” the prerogatives of men qua men, rather than merely men qua Christians. The political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries moved steadily in this direction, and the political ideologists of the American and French revolutions acted violently upon these new principles of civic organization.

As has been noted, however, even as modern, liberal society was being formed, there was an egalitarian perspective that looked beyond it. This perspective delineated not merely an equality of rights and freedoms but a fraternal equality of condition. Thus, Winstanley, the Digger, prefigured the socialist idea of equality with his declaration that “the earth was made by Almighty God to be a common treasury of livelihood for whole mankind in all his branches …”-(Lakoff 1964, p. 79). This is socialism, but of a premodern kind. The “common treasury” is a static conception of wealth, and all premodern socialist thinkers envisaged a good society as one of economic modesty rather than of economic abundance—goods were to be distributed equally, and everyone was to be content with what he had. It was not until the nineteenth century that modern socialism, alert to the possibilities of the industrial and technological revolutions it was witnessing, put forward the prospect of equality conjoined to increasing wealth for all. Since premodern socialism demanded a certain measure of asceticism from its adherents, while modern socialism could appeal simultaneously to human idealism and to human appetites, it is not surprising that modern socialism has a far more powerful popular appeal.

It is a distinguishing characteristic of the modern age that “equality” should be not merely an abstract ideal but also a politically aggressive idea. It is generally accepted—it is, indeed, one of the most deeply rooted conventions of contemporary political thought—that the existence of inequality is a legitimate provocation to social criticism. Every inequality is on the defensive, must prove itself against the imputation of injustice and unnaturalness. And where such proof is established, it never asserts itself beyond the point where inequality is to be tolerated because it is, under particular conditions, inescapable. That inequality may be per se desirable is a thought utterly repugnant to the modern sensibility.

The modern egalitarian impulse has had its objective social correlatives. Modern society tends to have a more equal distribution of income and wealth than previous social orders in Western history. Statistics are fragmentary and are open to dispute as to their significance. But, for France, Jean Fourastié ([1951] 1960, p. 30) has made the following estimate: “The salary of a councilor of state increased by a factor of at least 40 from 1800 to 1948; the salary of a professor at the Collége de France by 100; the average salary of an office boy in a government agency by 220; the hourly wages of labourers in provincial cities by more than 400.” The general tendency would seem to be unmistakable.

The limits and potential of equality . Nevertheless, there is considerable controversy over the issue of whether equality has been adequately realized in our modern social arrangements. This controversy derives in large part from the ambiguities inherent in the idea of equality. Thus, a comparative percentile increase for lower-income groups represents a step toward equality only from a limited, statistical point of view. In another perspective, it can be regarded as a movement toward further inequality. For when a man’s income is increased from a million dollars a year to two million (i.e., doubled), while another’s income is increased from one thousand to five thousand (i.e., quintupled), it can fairly be said that the rich man has benefited more notably—in absolute magnitudes—than the poor. Whether one wishes to make such an assertion will depend entirely upon one’s conception of equality—whether, that is, one is measuring equality by absolute or relative standards. The progressive income tax represents an effort by the modern state to mediate between these two notions of equality.

A similar ambiguity—between equality of condition and equality of opportunity—plays a most significant role in American social and political thought. Equality of opportunity will inevitably result in inequality of condition, since some men are more able, more energetic, and more fortunate than others. The American creed sanctions such inequality—but only halfheartedly. For there has always been an implicit corollary—derived from the premise that all men are created equal—that equality of opportunity ought to lead to approximate equality of condition, and that failure to realize this goal reflects a deficiency (if not a positive error) in the existing social and economic arrangements. The tides of American politics flow between these two polar conceptions of equality.

In recent years, some of the leading thinkers of American sociology have attempted to transcend this debate over equality by declaring inequality to be a necessary condition of all social organization. To some extent, this effort originates in the experience of just how little effect popular or political ideas about equality have on comparable social structures. The distribution of income in all modern industrialized nations is astonishingly similar, no matter whether the governing ideology of this nation be socialist (e.g., Sweden) or capitalist (e.g., the United States). Instead of wondering about the origins of inequality and of social classes—as did the sociologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—such thinkers as Talcott Parsons, Kingsley Davis, and Wilbert E. Moore have attempted to demonstrate that social differentiation and social stratification are indispensable to the very existence of a social structure—that each society has functional “norms,” both inwardly and outwardly coercive, which prescribe the acceptable degrees and kinds of inequality to be tolerated.

This sociological thesis represents a covert return to the hierarchical principles of distributive justice and proportional equality elaborated by Aristotle in Book v of the Ethica nicomachea and Book III of the Politics. And since the history of the idea of equality in the Western world is to a considerable extent a record of intermittent, and sometimes violent, dissatisfaction with these principles, it is understandable that the debate over equality should be an unending one, with every new resolution the occasion for a new beginning.

Irving Kristol



ARISTOTLE Ethica nicomachea. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.

ARISTOTLE Politics. With an English translation. London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959.

Dahrendorf, Ralf 1962 On the Origin of Social Inequality. Pages 88-109 in Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (editors), Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series): A Collection. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1844) 1920 Politics. Pages 310-323 in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series. New York: Dutton.

Fourastie, Jean (1951) 1960 The Causes of Wealth. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published in French.

Lakoff, Sanford A. 1964 Equality in Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

WOLLHEIM, RICHARD; and BERLIN, ISAIAH 1955-1956 Equality. Parts 1-2. Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy, London, Proceedings 56: 281-326.

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Equality is a highly complex concept, there being as many forms of equality as there are ways of comparing the conditions of human existence. Equality can refer to numerous features of human life, which is why the term is usually preceded by an adjective that specifies which one is captured, such as social equality, legal equality, political equality, formal equality, or racial equality, to mention but a few. This entry will focus on the more important variants.


There is, firstly, political or legal equality, which is concerned with the right to vote, to stand for office, and to be treated equally before the law, irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, disability, social background, or other such features. In medieval times, rulers took it for granted that hierarchy is natural or inevitable and that a few are entitled to privileges denied to the many. One of the achievements of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was the acknowledgement that all human beings have equal moral worth by virtue of a shared human essence. The Declaration of Independence (All men are created equal) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Men are born and remain free and equal in rights) enshrined this principle in the national constitutions of the United States and France, respectively.

Numerous privileges of rank and order that had survived from feudal times were abolished in the following centuries: Slavery was done away with, universal suffrage was introduced, public offices were opened up to competition, and racial segregation was replaced with racial integration. Not everyone has been content with these achievements, however, and many today demand further changes, particularly with regard to race relations, gender equality in the workplace, and the rights of the disabled.

While the struggles over legal and political equality continue, the academic discourse in the social sciences has been concerned more with another type of equality, namely, that of substantive equality.


Political thinkers started to question the worth of the principle of political or legal equality, given that, if left on its own, it merely grants each person an equal right to eat in an expensive restaurantin the sense that no one is excluded on the grounds of race, gender, or religionbut entirely fails to address individuals capacity to exercise that right, that is, their money. If wealth or some other measure of welfare is a prerequisite for exercising rights to equal treatment in other spheres, the question arises as to how social goods should be distributed. Once this normative issue is settled within political philosophy, the related practical question in public policy becomes imminent as to whether, how, and to what extent liberal democracies should ensure a level of substantive equality.

While many issues surrounding this question remain contentious, others are now regarded as relatively uncontroversial. Figure 1 depicts some of the more important debates carried out in political philosophy in recent decades. Once substantive equality is agreed upon as an aim worth pursuing, it is necessary to specify if equality is seen as an instrumental or intrinsic ideal. A wide consensus in favor of the latter has emerged, which states that equality is a good thing because of its implications for values other than equality itself, such as greater individual choice, personal autonomy, or the capacity to exercise rights. Hence, the desirability of a more equal distribution is due, not to the fact that it is more equal but that it is expected to promote that other value. Inequality can therefore be acceptable, provided a so-called Pareto improvement is achieved so that at least one person has been made better off without making anyone else worse off.

On the next level, the concept of equality requires a further distinction between individual features that result from voluntary choices and those that are a product of social and natural circumstances. The majority of egalitarian philosophers claim that it is unfair if, to employ a term coined by John Rawls (19212002), morally arbitrary factors differentially influence the course of peoples lives, and that redistribution is justified as a way of neutralizing them (1971). The fundamental aim of equality should be to compensate people for undeserved bad luck, for aspects of their situations for which they are not responsible. As Ronald Dworkin states (2000), there is a moral warrant to level the inequalities in the distribution of social goods that are generated by differing endowments, while leaving intact those inequalities generated by differential effort,

planning, and risk taking. No one deserves their genetic endowments or other accidents of birth, such as who their parents are and where they were born. The advantages that flow from those blessed with such fortunes must not be retained exclusively by them.

This is the stage where the traces of consensus in political philosophy end, as much work in the discipline has been dedicated unsuccessfully to the subsequent question as to what it is that is to be equalized. The aim has been to establish the appropriate standard of interpersonal comparison, or currency of egalitarian justice. Several suggestions have been made. Rawls proposes what he calls primary goods: income, wealth, opportunity, and the bases of self respect. Nobel laureate Armatya Sen concentrates on capabilities to choose between various functionings that a person is able to realize in his or her life. Further accounts are G. A. Cohens access to advantage and Dworkins resources.

The diversity of these proposals shows how difficult it is to assess the features of an individuals conditions that are to be rendered equal: They all have different causes and require compensation in a different way. Should we follow proposals that ensure an equal end-state outcome? Or should we guarantee equality achieved at some initial point in time, irrespective of what level of equality is achieved thereafter?

While the debate in political philosophy is ongoing, substantive equality is a more imminent concern for political practice, where policymakers in liberal democracies face pressures from their electorates if they fail to take measures that ensure equal life prospects to some degree. Historically, the welfare state has been the vehicle through which governments have sought to address the problem. Social and economic security has been provided to the states population by means of pensions, social security benefits, free health care, and so forth. However, increasing pressures of globalization toward the end of the twentieth century compelled welfare states to subject their public expenditures to much more stringent economic scrutiny. Public spending and taxes were cut and responsibility for welfare was reassigned from the state to the individual. States have done so to varying degrees, however, and the measurable levels of equality today differ markedly as a result.


When complex social phenomena are condensed into a single measure, criticism is bound to arise. Even so, the most common statistical index in the social sciences to measure substantive equality within a society is the so-called Gini-coefficient, named after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini (18841965). The Gini-coefficient (Figure 2) varies between the limits of 0 (perfect equality) and 1 (perfect inequality) and is best captured visually with the help of a diagram that measures the percentage share of the population on the x axis and the percentage income distribution on the y axis. The coefficient represents the geometrical divergence of the so-called Lorenz curve, which measures the actual percentage income distribution, from a line with a 45-degree angle, which represents perfect equality, in the sense that everyone is equally

wealthy. The closer the Lorenz curve is to the diagonal line, the smaller the shaded area beneath that line, and the smaller the resultant Gini-coefficient, the more equal is the societys income distribution.

During the 1980s and 1990s, some advanced industrial nations experienced significant shifts in this coefficient, most notably the United Kingdom and the United States, where the neoliberal economic policies introduced by the governments of the day brought about notable increases in income inequality. As statistics produced by the United Nations show (UNDP 2005), in the United Kingdom the Gini-coefficient rose from 0.25 in 1979 to 0.35 in 2000, while the United States saw an increase from 0.36 to 0.43 over the same period. By comparison, countries with more extensive welfare state arrangements, such as most Scandinavian countries, have experienced only minor changes and continue to record Gini-coefficients of between 0.24 and 0.26. On the other end of the spectrum, states such as Brazil, Mexico, and, increasingly, China report the highest income inequality, with coefficients of between 0.47 and 0.60.


Dworkin, Ronald. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

United Nations Development Program. 2005. Human Development Report 2005: International Cooperation at a Crossroads: Aid, Trade, and Security in an Unequal World. New York: UNDP. See especially Table 15.

Williams, Andrew, and Matthew Clayton, eds. 2000. The Ideal of Equality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Dirk Haubrich

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224. Equality (See also Feminism.)

  1. Augsburg, Peace of German princes determined state religion; Lutherans granted equal rights (1555). [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 185]
  2. Bakke decision reverse discrimination victim; entered medical school with Supreme Courts help. [Am. Hist.: Facts (1978), 483]
  3. Barataria monarchy where all men are equal and the rulers share the palace chores. [Br. Opera: Gilbert and Sullivan The Gondoliers ]
  4. Dred Scott decision controversial ruling stating that Negroes were not entitled to equal justice. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 203]
  5. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission U.S. government agency appointed to promote the cause of equal opportunity for all U.S. citizens. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
  6. Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) the proposed 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating that men and women must be treated equally by law. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
  7. Equality State nickname of Wyoming, first state to give women the right to vote. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
  8. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) vanguard of Negro fight for racial equality. [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 548549]
  9. Nantes, Edict of granted Protestants same rights as Catholics in France (1598). [Fr. Hist.: EB, VII: 184]
  10. Nineteenth Amendment granted women right to vote (1920). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 409]
  11. We Shall Overcome anthem of civil rights movement, rallying song of black Americans. [Am. Pop. Cult.: Misc.]

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This entry includes three subentries:

Gender Equality
Racial Equality

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equalitybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

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