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OverviewConcerns About Equality

Many political thinkers have worried that applications of an ideal of equality may undermine freedom. For Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), equality can easily come to dominate people's political aspirations. As he puts it, citizens (Americans in particular) "want equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery" (p. 506). Worse, people may tolerate not being free as long as everyone is equally un-free. Equality also isolates individuals, according to Tocqueville. It ends any sense of mutual responsibility that may have previously existed; there is no longer any sense of duty either to one's "superiors" or one's "inferiors" because there are no real superiors or inferiors. Hannah Arendt echoes Tocqueville in her distinction between liberation and freedom. Liberation of the poor from crushing material necessity and dependence on others is a prerequisite to freedom, but it is not freedom because it does not entail participation in self-governance. However, there is a tendency for revolutionary movements to settle for liberation—for relative material equality—rather than seeking complete freedom. Finally, the liberal John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) is concerned that with the undermining of "differences of position" in society, and with "the ascendancy of public opinion in the State," groups and individuals are increasingly the same and find less and less room for dissent and nonconformity (p. 70). All these thinkers share a general sense that while some forms of equality are key prerequisites of a good politics, equality must not be mistaken for the ultimate political ideal, which for these thinkers is freedom.

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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