NOTES on Kai Nielsen (born 1925): In Defense of Egalitarianism


Kai Nielsen (born 1925)

The glossary of the textbook Fundamentals of Philosophy, by David Stewart and H. Gene Blocker, defines “egalitarian” as the “[p]olitical doctrine that no one has a right to a greater share of social goods [defined by Stewart and Blocker as ‘money, power, respect, education, health care, and so on’] than another; that individuals do not deserve the results of superior innate talents and abilities.”

In opposition to egalitarian is libertarian, which Stewart and Blocker define as the “[p]olitical doctrine that each individual should be maximally free from governmental restraint, especially as regards the freedom of the individual to accumulate and dispose of an unequal share of social goods through superior intelligence, or other talents and abilities.”

The classic advocate of egalitarianism is Karl Marx, the father of Communism; however, a contemporary exponent of egalitarianism is the Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen (born 1925). Nielsen defended egalitarianism in his 1985 book, Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism (published by Rowman and Littlefield).

Equality and Egalitarianism

Nielsen begins by attempting to make clear the notions of equality and egalitarianism. These notions currently are unclear. After all, many people who are against egalitarianism will say that they are for certain rights for everyone (for example, the rights that are protected by the Bill of Rights).

In addition, many people who are against egalitarianism will say that they are for moral equality; that is, as Nielsen writes, “Persons must all be treated as moral persons of equal worth; in this way they must all be treated as equals.” However, these people who are against egalitarianism go on to say that we must not treat people “identically.” Nielsen agrees with this: “A child and a very old and ill person should not be treated the same. But no egalitarian thinks that they should.”

There are some things that once defined egalitarianism but which are now accepted by conservatives, such as “equal legal and political rights for all members of a society.” However, Nielsen points out that although such rights are guaranteed by a society, say in a constitution, despite such “formal legal and political equality,” in reality there can be “substantive inequalities in legal protection and political power.”

For example, by law I can run for President of the United States; however, because I lack the necessary political contacts and sufficient funds to run for high office, I am unable to mount a credible campaign. Another example: A person who is on trial can often get a better defense if he or she can pay for a battery of expensive, high-powered attorneys than if he or she has to rely on a court-appointed attorney (often new to the legal profession). Therefore, according to egalitarians, if we are ever to achieve legal, political, and social equalities, we must also achieve economic equality.

Equality as a Goal or Ideal, and as a Right

It is possible to look at equality as a goal or ideal, or as a right. First Nielsen looks at economic equality as a goal:

“As a goal, as an ideal state of affairs to be obtained, an egalitarian is committed to trying to provide the social basis for an equality of condition for all human beings. The ideal, putting it minimally as a first step, is to provide the social basis for an equality of life prospects such that there cannot be anything like the vast disparities in whole life prospects that exist now.”

Nielsen finds it simply unfair that two children who have equal intelligence and equal abilities should have different life prospects because of who their parents are. The child of a successful businessperson can look forward to college, law school, travel in Europe, etc., while the child of a person getting public assistance can look forward only to inadequate food, shelter, clothing, and education. Both children may have the formal right of attending Harvard if they get accepted, but in reality, only one of the children (despite their being of equal intelligence) has the real-life possibility of attending Harvard.

To Nielsen, egalitarianism has as a goal the elimination of having such different life prospects simply as a result of which social class you are born into. To do this, however, we need an equality of wealth. As Nielsen writes, “It is as evident as anything can be that there is a close correlation between wealth and power.”

However, Nielsen also argues that “a certain kind of equality is a right.” He describes first the egalitarian goal: “That everyone, where this is reasonably possible, is to have his or her needs equally met is an egalitarian goal.” In addition to this goal are the egalitarian rights: “that people be treated as equals, that in the design of our institutions people have an equal right to respect, that none be treated as a means only, are natural rights.” (Natural rights are those rights “which need not be legal rights or rights which must be conventionally acknowledged.”)

Conservatives and Social Justice

Conservatives totally reject “an equality of condition.” They don’t want to see an equality of outcome, where, for example, a physician who has struggled through a dozen years of higher education makes the same income as a fast food worker who dropped out of high school. Conservatives would say that the physician deserves a higher income because he or she worked harder than the fast food worker.

Nielsen, however, writes, “Liberal egalitarians … are wary of appealing to the concept of desert. Our social and natural inheritance — that is, what kind of people we are and what our abilities and opportunities are — are in important ways beyond our control and are subject to all sorts of contingencies for which we are not, and indeed cannot be, responsible.”

For example, suppose that the physician has a very high IQ, while the fast food worker has a very low IQ. Both people are using their IQ and are not wasting their intelligence. In addition, both people were born with their respective IQs — this is not something that anyone has control over. (Environment can raise or lower one’s IQ a little, but basically you are born with a certain IQ.)

In addition, the skills that you were born with may or may not be useful in today’s society. If you were born with the potential to acquire computer-programming skills (which require abstract thinking), then you can train yourself for a job that is in demand. However, if you were born with the potential to be a great mountain man, then your potential skills are not in much demand — you should have been born a couple of centuries earlier, when the American West was being opened. Obviously, we do not control which century we are born in.

Conceptions of Radical Egalitarian Justice

There are a number of conceptions of radical egalitarian justice; however, Nielsen writes, they share an emphasis “on attaining, in attaining social justice, some central equality of condition for everyone. Some egalitarians stress some prized condition such as self-respect or a good life; others, more mundanely, but at least as crucially, stress an overall equal sharing of the various good things and bad things of the society.”

Two Principles of Egalitarian Justice

Nielsen has two principles of egalitarian justice:

1) “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties and opportunities (including equal opportunities for meaningful work, for self-determination and political and economic participation) compatible with a similar treatment of all. (This principle gives expression to a commitment to attain and/or sustain equal moral autonomy and equal self-respect.)”

This means that everyone will have an equal right to such social goods as food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and so on.

2) “After provisions are made for common social (community) values, for capital overhead to preserve the society’s productive capacity, allowances made for differing unmanipulated [for example, not manipulated by Madison Avenue] needs and preferences, and due weight is given to the just entitlements of individuals, the income and wealth (the common stock of means) is to be so divided that each person will have an equal right to an equal share.”

Nielsen’s second principle of egalitarian justice does not mean that all wealth will be divided equally. Part of the product of a society will be used for public goods (roads, hospitals, schools, public libraries). Part will be used “to protect future generations” (a clean environment). Part will be used to “preserve the society’s productive capacity” (to build and maintain factories, etc.).

What is left of the social product will be used to meet people’s needs “as fully as possible” and “as equally as possible.” This does not mean that everyone will be treated equally. For example, a child who wants skates will be given skates, and a child who wants snowshoes will be given snowshoes. (It’s easy to tell that Nielsen is from Canada.)

Nielsen’s Tool for Attaining Equality

Nielsen intends for his second principle of egalitarian justice to be a tool — “a tool in trying to attain a state of affairs where there are no considerable differences in life prospects between different groups of people because some have a far greater income, power, authority or privilege than others.”


Nielsen believes that justice demands that people, if possible, be given equal shares. But what if it is impossible to give equal shares? For example, life-saving medical resources may be so scarce that there are not enough to go around. Nielsen gives three examples and tells which recommendations he thinks would be consistent with egalitarian justice.

In each of the three examples, two people need blood for a transfusion, but there is not enough blood for both of them. In the first example, two people, person A and person B, need the blood. Both persons are similar, but person A has frequently donated blood, while person B has not. Many people would say that A should be given the blood, and Nielsen does not disagree, despite being hesitant to say that person A deserves the blood.

In the second example, two people are similar in many ways, but person A´ is a young woman with three children, and would be healthy after the transfusion. Person B´ is a 90-year-old woman with a feeble intellect, who will probably die soon even after receiving the transfusion. Nielsen would give the blood to the young woman because that way, more needs — those of the young woman’s children — would be satisfied.

In the final example, person A´´ is a community’s only doctor, while person B´´ is the town drunk. Nielsen would give the blood to the doctor because of social utility (“the overall good of the community”).

According to Nielsen, the important thing in the three cases is that giving the blood to person A, person A´, and person A´´ does not violate his second principle of egalitarian justice. All the people’s interests — those of A, A´, A´´, B, B´, and B´´ — are being considered equally.

As Nielsen writes, “We start from a baseline of equality. If there were none of these differences between them, if there were no other relevant differences, there would be no grounds to choose between them. We could not, from a moral point of view, simply favor A because he was A. Just as human beings, as moral persons or persons who can become capable of moral agency, we do not distinguish between them and we must treat them equally.”

Note: The quotations by Kai Nielsen that appear in this essay are from his book Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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