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Equality and Social Justice: A Modern Concern

Cyrielle Poiraud, University of Strasbourg

This paper investigates the growing interest modern democratic societies and western political thought have accorded to equality as related to the ideal of individual freedom, since the advent of modernity. We argue that the conception of the individual that modernity brought, as free, equal and rational, has founded the normative character of equality while settling individual freedom as an object for contemporary social justice theories. Indeed, although the history of political thought has mainly opposed the values of equality and liberty (Kymlicka, 1990), or even presented their relation as paradoxical (Tocqueville, 1840), they nowadays appear linked, as in equality is the social structure required for achieving people’s freedom – knowing the definition of freedom has evolved towards a more developed comprehension than the strict negative traditional one, notably including notions such as autonomy or self-determination. This conjoint concern for both equality and liberty as paradigmatic values leads to conceive contemporary theories of justice as all taking part of the branch of egalitarianism (Kymlicka, 1990; Sen, 2009), although they can of course still be distinguished according to the specific, concrete content of equality they promote – the traditional classification following one theory’s answer to the central question “Equality of what?”. But it appears that another mode of classification is possible: we suggest that two specific branches of egalitarianism emerge: from Sen’s distinction between “Equality of What?” and “Why Equality?” (1980), we draw two different approaches to think and make use of the concept of equality – abstract (referring to the moral conception of equality, as in “equal concern”, “equal attention”…) and concrete (referring to its specific content, the equalisandum), that is relevant as applied to recent theories, while showing the consistency of the former, as a proper modern concern.


Keywords: Equality, Social Justice, Liberty, Modernity

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