Equality & Liberty


Equality is an ideal of political philosophy which seeks to bridge the gap between top & the bottom, by using both negative and positive means i.e. saying no to the privileges and providing adequate opportunities to all individuals, based on the principle of similar treatment in similar circumstances.

Legal equality
  • Equality before law & equal protection of laws i.e. in the eyes of law all are equal
  • Law will be implemented equally to all the citizens
Political equality Equal participation in affairs of state i.e.

  • Right to vote
  • Right to contest elections
  • Right to hold public offices
  • Right to criticize the government
Social equality Abolition of all discriminations based on caste, creed, religion, language, race, religion, sex

  • Abolition of untouchability
  • Gender equality
Economic equality Equal participation in economic system of the state

  • Prevention of concentration of wealth
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Equal right to choose one’s profession

Marxist View on Equality

Marxist believed that inequalities emerge with the emergence of private property & equality can be prevailed by only abolition of private property, which will help in creation of a classless society. Only in a classless society, the principle, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ can be put into practice. Marxism maintains that economic inequality is the root cause of all other inequalities.

Arguments in favour

  • Strengthen the social cohesion & community by creating a common identity & shared interest
  • Safeguard people from poverty & satisfy the basic needs of people
  • Prevent concentration of wealth & hence power, in few hands

Arguments Against

  • Unjust as it treats unequals equally, therefore fails to reward people in line with their talents & capabilities
  • Results in leveling down of economy as it removes incentives & caps aspirations
  • It can be achieved only through state intervention, meaning it always infringes upon individual liberty

Liberty / Freedom

An ideal of political philosophy which has twin objective – to protect the individual from the authority, & need of authority, to help the individual to develop to the maximum extent

Political Liberty

  • Liberties by which we participate in the affairs of the state
  • Examples include freedom to vote, freedom to contest elections, Freedom to form political parties etc.

Economic Liberty

  • Freedom by which we participate in the economic system of a state
  • Examples include freedom of employment, freedom to choose profession

Negative Liberty

  • Absence of restraints
  • A limited state (laissez-faire)
  • Law & liberty are contradictory
  • Liberty & equality are contradictory
  • Distinction between liberty & conditions of liberty

Law & liberty are Contradictory – Law is in the form of binding instruction which either forces an individual to do something or prevents him from doing something; both the cases results in interference in individual’s life, thus loss of liberty.

Negative Liberty

Liberty & equality are Contradictory – If individuals in a society are left without any interference than the logical outcome would be inequality. Whereas, if we want to bring equality then certain policies like progressive taxation will be required to be implemented i.e. interference of the state, thus loss of liberty (Libertarian’s & elitist’s view)

Distinction between liberty & Conditions of liberty (Berlin) – Freedom does not depend on conditions of freedom. Freedom means one is free to choose whereas conditions of freedom are the supportive conditions which make one’s choices viable. Freedom may exist even in the absence of conditions of freedom. If state implies conditions of freedom then it will amount to external constraints, & it will destroy the freedom.

Criticism of Negative liberty

It is true that if we operate on the principle of negative freedom then there will be least interference & all of us will be free to do, what we like to do; but in such situation, freedom of one person may collide with freedom of other person, leading to a situation in which no one can fulfill his wishes.

Practical implication of negative liberty is limited state & laissez-faire economy. In such a situation, economic disparity will increase & only few individuals will be able to fulfill their wishes i.e. while majority of people will have freedom to choose, but only in theory.

Positive Liberty

  • Opportunities for development
  • All restraints are not evil (notion of welfare state)
  • Law & liberty are complementary
  • Liberty & equality are complementary
  • Freedom cannot exist without conditions of freedom

Supporters of positive liberty define liberty in terms of availability of those facilities which are essential for development of personality of an individual. If certain state actions in the form of restraints are required for this, then these restraints are not against liberty, rather they are essential for liberty. Supporters of positive liberty believe in the notion of welfare state

Law & liberty are complementary – In a democratic state, laws of the state are meant to create suitable conditions of life, where we could develop to the maximum extent. Further, in a democratic state, law is the expression of public opinion, as it is passed by the parliament, which represents will of the people – (Egalitarian’s & socialist’s view)

Positive Liberty

Liberty & equality are complementary – Liberty means conditions for development of personality. When these facilities are provided to every member of the society, irrespective of his religion, race, caste, gender then it becomes equality.

Freedom cannot exist without conditions of freedom – According to Amartya Sen, without conditions of freedom, freedom actually cannot survive i.e. in such a situation freedom will become a privilege for a particular class. Acc. to him, freedom to choose depends upon capability to choose.

Criticism of Positive Liberty

  • Marxist philosophers – State is a class instrument, therefore, freedom cannot be realized through state action.
  • If positive liberty principle is followed then role of state will increase which means increase in power of executives & bureaucracy, which may be a threat to liberty.

Mill’s Views on Liberty

According to Mill, liberty is the most important political ideal because the ultimate goal of human life is development of personality to the maximum extent, which is possible only in an atmosphere of liberty.

Mill talks of two forms of liberty

  • Liberty of thought – Full freedom for one’s thought & speech
  • Liberty of action – Act according to one’s own thoughts

Liberty of thought According to Mill, liberty of thought should be unlimited. He states that, an idea can have 3 possible dimensions –

  • It is completely true
  • It is completely false
  • It is partially true & partially false

If the idea is completely true, then there is no logic in restricting the idea, as whole world has the right to know the truth.

If the idea is false, then also it should not be restricted, as it will have no facts & hence cannot survive for a long time, thus, it should be replaced by true idea. This will result in benefiting the person with the wrong idea. Now, society is nothing but combination of individuals, hence, benefit to the individual will lead to benefit of society.

If the idea is partially true & partially false, then also it needs to be expressed because of the same above logic. Hence, mill conclude that ‘freedom of thought is unlimited’

Mill Support Freedom of thought on other Grounds also

  • Mill believes that every individual has equal moral worth; therefore, nobody has the right to put restrictions on others thought.
  • Mill justified freedom of thought as he considered it a precondition for the scientific inventions & knowledge of new truths

Liberty of ActionIt means freedom to act according to one’s own thoughts. According to Mill, freedom of thought is meaningless in the absence of freedom of action. Mill divides all human actions into 2 categories –

  • Self-regulating actions
  • Other regulating actions

Self-regulating actions are those actions which affect the individual only (consumption of liquor, gambling etc.) while other regulating actions affect other members of the society as well. Mill states that there should be non-interference of state & society in self-regulating actions, but there may be some rational interference of the state as well as society in case of other regulating actions. Thus, Mill concludes that, ‘man is sovereign over his body, mind, & soul’

Criticism of Mill

  • According to Barker, Mill is the prophet of “empty liberty & abstract individual
  1. Empty liberty – Acc. to Barker, Mill has glorified liberty & has given sound arguments to highlight the significance of liberty, but he has not been able to protect liberty from encroachments as he did not formulate a ‘philosophy of rights’ to defend liberty
  2. Abstract level – Acc. to Barker, all actions of individual directly or indirectly affect the society, hence, in real world, no such individual exists whose actions can be termed as self-regarding actions & other regarding actions. Such individuals are nothing but an imagination of mental construct.
  • Mill’s support for unlimited speech & expression may lead to various types of conflicts in the society viz. caste rights, communal rights etc.; which may further lead to social tension & social violence; finally leading to loss of life & property.
  • According to Jainism, absolute truth is not possible in this world, as truth has different possibilities.

Significance of Mill

  • Mill’s arguments to defend freedom of thought are logically very impressive
  • Today in 21st century when we see worldwide attacks on freedom of speech & expressions, Mill’s view seems to be more relevant
  • Mill supports unlimited freedom of thought but at the same time, he accepts a straight legislation in the fields of education, labour welfare, voting rights for women etc. hence, we see a mixture of both positive liberty as well as negative liberty in Mill’s thought.

Liberty & Equality are Contradictory

Libertarian’s & Elitist’s view

If individuals in a society are left without any interference than the logical outcome would be inequality. Whereas, if we want to bring equality then certain policies like progressive taxation will be required to be implemented i.e. interference of the state, thus loss of liberty.

Acc. to Libertarians, real liberty is possible only in capitalistic society because of least external restraints over individuals here, but at the same time capitalism breeds economic inequality – libertarians justify economic inequality & state that various reforms in the direction of bringing economic equality will destroy liberty.

Elitist thinkers – Only under the rule of elite class, liberty can be protective + Inequality is a precondition for survival of elite class. Liberty can be protected under the rule of elite class, which itself is based on inequality.

Law & Liberty are Complementary

Egalitarian’s & Socialist’s View

In a democratic state, laws of the state are meant to create suitable conditions of life, where we could develop to the maximum extent. Further, in a democratic state, law is the expression of public opinion, as it is passed by the parliament, which represents will of the people.

If there is a vast inequality in a society, then it means there are few individuals having privileges over majority; which in turn will finally destroy the liberty of majority.

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