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Critically evaluate the view that equality is achievable in contemporary society

This essay will make the case that equality is achievable within contemporary society, opting for a 'thick' definition of the term that goes beyond the argument for equal opportunities.  It will be argued that egalitarian aims are implicit in the philosophies of many seemingly anti-equality thinkers, and that equality may well be a logical requirement of all normative claims.  Due in large part to the work of Amartya Sen (1992), the argument over equality has shifted away from 'why equality?' towards 'equality of what?'. For this reason the focus of this essay will be the various approaches to equality and their levels of persuasiveness.  The two approaches that will be defended are both based on the notion of rights; the first concerns the inviolability of persons and the second the idea of rights as capabilities.  Finally some criticisms of the 'thick' conception will be considered, and the achievability of equality in contemporary society will be defended from these counter-arguments.

Equality has been variously dismissed as 'manifestly false' (Scruton 1980: 59) in its assumptions, immoral (Nozick 1974) in its prescriptions and even conservative in its outlook (Greer 1999: 380-398).  However, as Amartya Sen (1992: 12 - 15) has argued, beneath the surface we can in fact detect egalitarian notions in the philosophies of thinkers from across the political spectrum.  Even market libertarians demand equality of liberty (in the negative sense), while bitterly opposing the redistributive measures commonly associated with egalitarianism.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sweden is also the fifth most equal nation in the world, based on the GINI index, while Britain is 18th (UNDP 2006a).  Likewise, Norway has the highest GDP per capita of any country in the world (UNDP 2006b).  It is also the most equal according to the GINI index (UNDP 2006a).

In conclusion, the essay has argued that equality (or at least, far higher levels of equality) is achievable in contemporary society.  The notion of equal opportunities, however, is insufficient in either of its forms as it does not deal adequately with the issue of fairness.  I have therefore argued for a thicker, fuller conception of equality which concerns itself with both (a) the inviolability of persons in the protection of their rights and (b) the spread of concrete capabilities.  Perhaps the biggest barrier to equality is ideological, and stems from the ubiquity of capitalism in the modern world, which leads to a sense that it is a 'natural' state of affairs.  Yet Aristotle thought this was true of slavery, as the institution was so widespread in the ancient world (Aristotle 1992).  Egalitarians must push the case that, as Rousseau saw, the institution of private property is itself re-distributive of resources that often belong in common.  'You are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone's and the Earth is no one's' he lamented in his classic polemic (Rousseau 1999 [1755]: 106).  While perfect equality may be impossible, there is always the potential for more fairness, more justice and more equality in society.

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