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OverviewLiberalism, Civic Republicanism, And The Age Of Revolution

Modern conceptions of equality are deeply rooted in both the liberal and civic republican traditions of thought as well as in the age of revolution. Here we will look at each of these as well as at the socialist challenge to liberalism in particular. As we will see, in addition to natural, legal, and political forms of equality, economic equality (or inequality) also concerns many modern thinkers.

At its core, liberalism grew out of the social contract theories espoused by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704). For Hobbes (a proto-liberal), the individual is naturally equal because in a hypothetical state of nature he or she is equally at the mercy of other people, as even the weakest can kill the strongest through guile or collected effort. Escaping this environment of all against all is the reason for and basis of our entering into a social contract whereby we agree to give over most of our natural rights to a sovereign who will protect us, thereby allowing us to pursue our own interests. The focus in Hobbes is on abstract and radically equal individuals, and in his solution he does not worry much about the individual carrying his or her equal natural rights into the civil society that results from the social contract.

As the first true liberal, Locke emphasizes natural equal rights, roughly equal reason, and the need for a social contract to protect equal rights to pursue one's interests and realize the benefits of one's labor and property. However, Locke deemphasizes the salience of economic inequalities for politics. As we shall see, unlike the civic republicans, Locke does not emphasize that property is a means to an end and therefore should not be pursued without limit. In the commons-based economy of Locke's state of nature, and in the absence of money, it would be unjust to hoard forms of property that would "spoil," but in a private-property-based, money economy there is no natural limit to accumulation and therefore no natural limit to inequalities of property. In fact Locke argues that since money only has value through the "tacit and voluntary consent" of human beings, "men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth" (Second Treatise, p. 29). Material inequalities are not only inevitable, humans have chosen them. Moreover Locke emphasizes that privatization of the commons—and the inequalities that entails—will allow a more productive use of resources. While Locke repeatedly reminds readers that God "hath given the world to men in common," he offers no admonition—on the basis of natural law, reason, or religious teaching—that we limit our accumulation of wealth, and he does not offer warnings about the effects of inequalities of property on politics (Second Treatise, p. 18).

For Adam Smith (1723–1790), the key economic inequality of his time that needed to be eliminated was mercantilist monarchy's awarding economic opportunities not to all alike but to a few well-connected subjects. Out of Smith's critique of mercantilism comes the notion of equality of economic opportunity. Given equal economic opportunities, individuals will pursue their own interests on the basis of their abilities, and the fact that inequality of outcome will result is not a problem for Smith as long as political equality is protected. Smith is fundamentally worried, however, about an economic system in which the players have unequal market power. His ideal market comprises many small producers and consumers, none of whom have the power to significantly influence prices and thereby infringe on the liberty of others by extracting benefits beyond what they would as equally powerless players. Furthermore, while Smith does not worry overly much about economic inequality per se, he is troubled both by the dangers of pursuing wealth too avidly and by the deprivations of having too little, especially when they force one into dependence on a work environment that dulls one's reasoning faculties.

A slightly different strand within the liberal tradition follows Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant's important contribution to the notion of equality has to do with his contention that from a moral or ethical point of view there is an obligation (categorical imperative) to treat individuals as ends in themselves and not merely as means for some other end. This rises from the human capacity to reason and therefore the will to be self-determining (see Practical Philosophy, pp. 77–82). This notion will deeply influence modern ethical thought, especially thinking about human rights as it informs the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEquality - Overview - Ancient Views Of Equality, Equality In The Church And The Protestant Reformation, Liberalism, Civic Republicanism, And The Age Of Revolution