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date: 01 October 2022

Relational Egalitarianismfree

Relational Egalitarianismfree

  • Kristin VoigtKristin VoigtDepartment of Philosophy, McGill University


For relational egalitarians, equality is about how individuals relate to one another: equality requires that individuals regard and treat each other as equals. Different relational egalitarians have fleshed out this idea in different ways and use of the umbrella term “relational equality” should not detract from the differences between relational egalitarian views on offer.

One question about relational equality is whether its requirements apply to individuals, institutions, or both. Some relational egalitarians focus primarily on what it means for individuals, or co-citizens, to relate to one another as equals, highlighting, for example, the problematic nature of status hierarchies and stigmatization of certain groups, or the need to give equal consideration to everyone’s interests. Such accounts sometimes also emphasize the importance of certain self-regarding attitudes, especially self-respect, as a component or requirement of relational equality. For other relational egalitarians, relational equality applies—primarily or additionally—to how institutions, especially states, relate to individuals. Institutional requirements can arise instrumentally (which institutions are best suited to produce egalitarian relations among individuals?) or because the demands of relational equality apply to institutions directly.

A second crucial distinction, cutting across the first, is whether relational equality is taken to issue requirements about our treatment of others, our attitudes toward them, the attitudes expressed toward them, or a combination of these. Specifying where relational equality applies is important, not least because egalitarian treatment, egalitarian attitudes, and expression of egalitarian attitudes need not run together.

Relational egalitarians have offered different views as to why relational equality matters in the first place. Relational equality may be valuable instrumentally (i.e., it promotes values such as self-respect); or because it has non-instrumental, impersonal value (i.e., the world is better if relationships are egalitarian); or because it expresses a deontic requirement about how individuals must treat each other.

Relational egalitarians initially developed their views in response to distributive accounts of equality (such as luck egalitarianism), which assume that equality requires the equal distribution of a metric such as welfare. While relational egalitarians reject that assumption, they emphasize that distributions matter for equality for several reasons, for example when they interfere with egalitarian relationships, or when they are caused by relational inequality.

Relational egalitarians have explored the real-world implications of their views, often opposing markets in favor of state provision of social services such as education or healthcare.

Questions about the scope of relational equality are particularly crucial when it comes to determining its requirements: while relational egalitarians typically focus on requirements arising within political communities, it is not clear that relational equality can or should be limited by state boundaries; some relational egalitarians have begun to explore the possibility of a global relational egalitarianism. Similarly, tying requirements of relational equality to reciprocity may limit the theory to individuals with specific cognitive capacities.

One striking aspect of the literature is the pluralism to which relational egalitarians are committed, for example when it comes to the reasons why relational equality is valuable, or the criteria used to identify when relational equality obtains. This does not make relational equality incoherent, but it creates the possibility of conflicting requirements.


  • Political Philosophy
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


Relational theories of equality were initially articulated as a response to the perceived dominance of luck egalitarianism and its underlying assumption that equality is distributive—i.e., “that there is something which justice requires people to have equal amounts of” (Cohen, 1989, p. 906). This assumption, relational egalitarians argued, is fundamentally misguided. Equality is not about distributions but rather about how individuals relate to one another: equality requires that individuals regard and treat each other as equals.

The idea of relational equality has intuitive appeal. It connects with our basic commitment to individuals’ moral equality and it captures important egalitarian concerns that are not primarily distributive, such as egalitarians’ opposition to racist or gender-based oppression. However, it is far from clear what the precise requirements of relational equality are. Much of the literature has focused on describing relational egalitarians’ opposition to phenomena such as hierarchies and oppression rather than delineating a positive view of relational equality. This means that basic questions about relational equality, such as its precise requirements, the scope of these requirements and the reason(s) for valuing it, remain underexplored. This article seeks to take stock of the current debate and to reconstruct the positive vision(s) of relational equality that emerge from the literature.

The discussion will highlight two related points. First, relational egalitarians disagree on a number of different aspects of relational equality. Using the umbrella term “relational egalitarianism” must not detract from the many differences between specific views on offer. Second, the discussion suggests that relational equality is, for several of its advocates, pluralist in a number of different respects: different sets of requirements may be considered sufficient for relational equality to obtain; these requirements can be derived in different ways; relational egalitarians typically endorse multiple reasons for valuing relational equality; and relational equality is only one of multiple values that are—or can be—endorsed by relational egalitarians.

The article begins by setting out what relational equality requires: of individuals and their relations to each other as well as of institutions. It then considers why relational equality is of value in the first place and what follows from different responses to this question. It goes on to reconsider the relationship between relational and distributive views of equality. The article then considers a number of real-world implications that have been proposed as following from the relational view of equality. It finally highlights the internal complexity of relational equality and different kinds of pluralism that at least some relational egalitarians are committed to.

What Does Relational Equality Require?

In the most general terms, relational egalitarians see equality as concerned with how individuals relate to one another. Proponents have described their accounts as aiming for “democratic equality” (Anderson, 1999), “social equality” (Fourie, 2011; Scheffler, 2003a), or “equality of status” (Miller, 1997). The term “relational equality” is used here because it can serve as an umbrella term for conceptions of equality that focus on the relations between individuals, and because it captures the contrast to distributive conceptions of equality. However, there are significant differences between the positions defended by different relational egalitarians.

Many relational egalitarians describe their favored conception of equality not in positive terms but rather focus on what their view identifies as inegalitarian. It is phenomena such as hierarchies (or at least hierarchies of certain kinds), oppression, domination, social exclusion, and stigmatization of certain individuals or groups that relational egalitarians typically single out as inimical to (their conception of) equality.1

While this article focuses on extracting the positive elements of the relational egalitarian position, it is worth noting that relational egalitarians sometimes explicitly resist a more specific, positive description of what relational equality requires. In fact, Wolff (2015a, p. 225) has cautioned against focusing on providing such a description, arguing that “it is unlikely that any detailed positive account will command wide assent among those who favor social equality.” Instead, “a range of different and incompatible models can each be seen as exemplifying social equality” (Wolff, 2015a, p. 221). He suggests that a more fruitful approach is to focus on the conditions that can be clearly identified as inconsistent with relational equality. Wolff is right to highlight the differences between the views proposed by relational egalitarians and the possibility that very different social models could all meet the requirements of relational equality. However, this article starts from the assumption that there is still value in attempting to identify a core set of requirements that must be satisfied for relational equality to obtain—it is only with a clearer sense of these requirements that the extent to which particular social arrangements exemplify, or fall short of, the relational egalitarian ideal can be assessed.

This article assumes that determining the positive requirements of relational equality is a conceptual question. This is despite the fact that relational egalitarians sometimes favor a methodological approach that is, to at least some degree, tied to the demands of egalitarian movements in the real world. In particular, Anderson (1999) takes as one of the desiderata of an account of equality that it resonates with the claims of egalitarian movements. From this perspective, describing the demands of relational equality is not only a matter of conceptual work but also involves empirical investigation of what it is that specific social movements have demanded.2 However, it is far from clear that this is the best way of conceiving the relationship between the demands of social movements and philosophical theorizing about equality, not least because such theorizing should provide the tools to critically assess the demands of real-world movements. This article approaches this issue as a purely conceptual question.

This section identifies different requirements that relational equality may issue. It first examines relational egalitarians’ claims with respect to possible dimensions of relational equality when it comes to how individuals relate to one another. It then considers the extent to which relational equality has implications for institutions such as states. As will become clear, a variety of different, not necessarily closely connected, requirements have been endorsed by different egalitarians.

What Does Relational Equality Require of Individuals?

Some relational egalitarians cash out the requirements of relational equality in terms of the avoidance of hierarchies and inequalities in social status or standing. For example, Miller (1997, p. 224) describes a society that meets requirements of relational equality as a society that is “not marked by status divisions such that one can place different people in hierarchically ranked categories, in different classes for instance.” These egalitarians, of course, recognize that hierarchies of different kinds are ubiquitous in contemporary societies. How should relational egalitarians respond to this? Some relational egalitarians allow that hierarchies are not always problematic from the perspective of relational equality. Miller (1997, p. 232) suggests that relational equality does not necessarily require equality in power, prestige, or wealth; rather, hierarchies are problematic when they “serve to construct a social hierarchy in which A can unequivocally be ranked as B’s superior” (see also Fourie, 2011). Equality is maintained when “each member of the community enjoys an equal standing with all the rest that overrides their unequal ratings along particular dimensions” (Miller, 1997, p. 232). People’s interactions can be an indicator of the extent to which this condition is met: hierarchies of the unproblematic kind do not prevent people from interacting on egalitarian terms—e.g., people “use common modes of address…, they shake hands rather than bow, they choose their friends according to common tastes and interests rather than according to social rank” (Miller, 1997, p. 232).

In a similar vein, Schuppert (2015a) argues that hierarchies and status differences can be unobjectionable from the perspective of equality. To distinguish those hierarchies that are problematic from those that are not, the main consideration is whether they undermine rather than leave intact each individual’s “free and responsible agency” (Schuppert, 2015a, p. 108) and allow for egalitarian interactions between individuals. Hierarchies become problematic when they involve differences in power or authority that cause some individuals to exist in conditions of domination. For example, hierarchies between employers and employees are often structured in such a way that employers can arbitrarily interfere with their employees, which makes them problematic from an egalitarian perspective. Democratic workplace structures can protect employees against such interference and ensure that the hierarchical relationship between employers and employees is not inegalitarian.

Anderson (2012a) links hierarchies to what she considers the central concerns of egalitarian movements, such as those opposed to racism or sexism. She defines social hierarchies as:

durable group inequalities that are systematically sustained by laws, norms, or habits… . They create classes of people who relate to one another as superiors to inferiors… . Social hierarchies are typically based on ascriptive group identities such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality.

(Anderson, 2012a, p. 42)

She identifies three kinds of hierarchy that relational egalitarians object to: (a) hierarchies of domination, which leave those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy subject to the arbitrary control of others; (b) hierarchies of esteem, in which those on the lower rungs are stigmatized and the targets of denigrating stereotypes; (c) hierarchies of standing in which the interests of those in inferior positions are given less weight than the interests of those in higher positions of the hierarchy in deliberative and decision-making processes. These hierarchies are conceptually distinct though they will often operate in tandem, leaving some at the bottom of all three types of hierarchy.

When Anderson considers hierarchies of esteem, she is concerned with denigrating attitudes and stigmatization, which seem to clearly run afoul of the basic commitments of relational equality. But there may also be more subtle inequalities of esteem that involve not the inferiorization of those on the lower rungs on the hierarchy but still a negative appraisal of those individuals. For example, those with particular skills, talents, looks, and so on, are often held in high esteem, and such positive valuations are withheld from others. Fourie (2015) argues that such hierarchies of esteem are distinct from those hierarchies that indicate the inferior or superior status of individuals. Such hierarchies involve violations of what Darwall (1977, p. 38) calls “recognition respect,” which entitles individuals “to have other persons take [them] seriously and weigh appropriately the fact that they are persons in deliberating about what to do.” Failure to treat others with recognition respect is straightforwardly problematic for relational equality.3 Hierarchies of esteem, however, do not violate recognition respect; rather they are inequalities of appraisal respect—i.e., “an attitude of positive appraisal of [a] person either as a person or as engaged in some particular pursuit” (Darwall, 1977, p. 38). While inequalities in appraisal respect are not linked to inferior or superior status and therefore do not seem straightforwardly problematic from an egalitarian perspective, Fourie suggests that they can nonetheless lead to feelings of inferiority among those who lack esteem and thus undermine egalitarian relations among citizens. For this reason, Fourie argues, societies of equals would not encourage hierarchies of esteem, for example through competitions or beauty contests, or by highlighting specific talents. This suggests a more demanding approach to inequalities of esteem than Anderson’s account.

Wolff (2019) proposes a more pragmatic, and more cautious, take on social hierarchies. When considering how best to deal with hierarchies in the real world, it is not necessarily the case that seeking to get rid of hierarchies altogether is the best response—even if hierarchies are problematic from the perspective of social equality. He argues that our focus should be on those hierarchies that are particularly damaging, especially in their effects on those on their lower rungs, and that can be mitigated relatively easily and with an expectation that such mitigation will have positive effects.

Scheffler (2005a, p. 17) offers a broader position on the question of hierarchies in egalitarian societies. He maintains that relational equality requires “human relationships that are, in certain crucial respects at least, unstructured by differences of rank, power or status.” In response to the ubiquity of hierarchies, he suggests not only that some relationships may be consistent with relational equality despite not being “altogether unmarked by distinctions of rank or status” but also notes that some relationships may be valuable despite being inegalitarian in character. This echoes Lippert-Rasmussen’s (2018, p. 53) suggestion that the most plausible response relational egalitarians can give on the issue of hierarchies is a pluralist one, which allows that some relationships, such as those between parents and their children, do not meet requirements of relational equality but are valuable for other reasons.

When relational egalitarians consider what makes hierarchies problematic from the perspective of relational equality, they concern themselves not only with how individuals act toward one another but also the attitudes they have toward each other. The idea that equality involves both actions and attitudes is also reflected in many of the general descriptions of relational equality, such as the idea that it requires “a society in which people regard and treat one another as equals” (Miller, 1997, p. 224). While relational egalitarians do not spell out in much detail the relationship between these two aspects of relational equality, they typically seem to assume that both behavior and attitudes are necessary for relational equality to obtain (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018). Specifying the relationship between the behavioral and attitudinal components of relational equality is important, for at least two reasons. First, the two do not necessarily go together: someone can treat another person as an equal without regarding that person as an equal, and someone can regard another person as an equal but fail to treat them as equal (see also Cohen, 2014; Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, pp. 70–71). Second, it is possible for individuals to regard as equal someone who they do not have the opportunity to treat as equal or unequal (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, p. 73); this is the case, for example, when it comes to how individuals relate to those who lived in the past. This second implication matters for the scope of relational egalitarianism: a much broader range of individuals can be regarded as equal (or unequal) than can be treated as equals (also see section “Relational equality and the real world” for further discussion of this point).

What are the behaviors and attitudes that individuals must have toward each other if they are to relate as equals? Several of the features of relational equality that have been singled out in the literature tie egalitarian relations to certain ways of reasoning and deliberating with others, and the dispositions and attitudes that individuals have toward such deliberation. Perhaps most prominently, Scheffler (2015, p. 35) has proposed that one aspect of a society of equals is that its members abide by what he calls the “deliberative constraint,” which requires that

each member accepts that every other member’s equally important interests should play an equally significant role in influencing decisions made on behalf of the society as a whole. Moreover, each member has a normally effective disposition to treat the interests of others accordingly.

Note that the requirement focuses not on the outcome of the deliberation (which, Scheffler emphasizes, could take many different forms), but on the attitudes and dispositions it requires of individuals.4

Anderson, too, thinks of relational equality as having implications for our deliberations with others. For one, for equality to obtain, “others [must] recognize an obligation to listen respectfully and respond to one’s arguments” (Anderson, 1999, p. 313), and people must see themselves as having an obligation to justify certain actions to others: “democratic equality regards two people as equal when each accepts the obligation to justify their actions by principles acceptable to the other, and in which they take mutual consultation, reciprocation, and recognition for granted” (Anderson, 1999, p. 313).

Relational equality may also require that certain reasons be excluded from deliberations with others. For example, Viehoff (2014) notes that one aspect of what it means to relate to others as equals is that individuals are prepared not to use any advantages they may have over someone else in their deliberations with them: “partners committed to relating to one another as equals will exclude from deliberation facts of unequal physical power, or unequal economic prospects, in dealing with one another” (Viehoff, 2014, p. 359; see also Kolodny, 2014).

Relational equality may also have implications for the extent to which individuals are prepared to interact with one another. Does equal regard for others require a willingness to interact with them? That this is a concern for relational egalitarians is perhaps most explicit in Miller (1997, p. 232), when he notes that in a society that meets requirements of social equality, people “choose their friends according to common tastes and interests rather than according to social rank.” Similarly, in her account of racial inequality, Anderson (2010a p. 17, emphasis added) suggests that when relational theories focus on “relations,” they take this to include norms “by which one party interacts with (or avoids) the other party.” Schemmel (2011, p. 383) discusses middle-class parents discouraging their children from playing with children from poor backgrounds, noting that this treats the children and their parents “in ways that make clear to them that they are socially inferior.”

For some egalitarians, the attitudes required for relational equality also have an affective component. For example, Baker (2015) argues that relating to others as equals may require attitudes of care and solidarity. Others see relational equality as having an almost communitarian spirit. In Cohen’s (2009, pp. 34–35) vision of a socialist society (which many commentators, such as Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, and Tomlin, 2014, identify as a version of relational egalitarianism), individuals “care” about each other, and “care that they care.” Other relational views envisage a society characterized by relations of “fraternity” or civic friendship (Mason, 2015), and suggest that part of what it means to be a society of equals is for citizens to think of each other as being “in the same boat” (Fourie, 2016, p. 200).

An underlying question here is whether relational equality obtains when problematic status inequalities, attitudes, and behaviors are avoided but individuals take very little interest in each other: can a society in which people are equally disinterested in each other’s fate be a society of equals? If, as some egalitarians suggest, relational equality requires civic friendship, care, or a willingness to interact with others, then such equal indifference would be inconsistent with relational equality. At the same time, however, it may be hard to see how an egalitarian could motivate a preference for a society in which people care a lot (and equally) about each other’s interests over one in which no one cares about anyone’s interests at all, as long as they are equally indifferent toward each other’s interests. Scheffler (2015, p. 31) explicitly notes that the “equal indifference” scenario is incompatible with relational equality, arguing that relationships are not egalitarian if individuals have the relevant attitudes and dispositions to an equal but low degree: “the egalitarian aim is not to equalize the relevant attitudes and dispositions but to maximize them: to ensure that both parties exhibit them to the fullest.”

In addition to these considerations that relational egalitarians have considered explicitly, there could be additional requirements of relational equality. First, relational equality may require that individuals have certain beliefs about others. Relational egalitarians may find congenial recent arguments that certain beliefs, such as beliefs that involve prejudice, wrong their targets (e.g., Basu, 2019). Second, relational equality may have implications for how people relate to others’ testimony. What Fricker (2007) calls testimonial injustice—a hearer’s failure to give due credibility to a speaker because of prejudice in the hearer’s mind—could be described as a failure on the part of the hearer to recognize the speaker as an equal (Roessler, 2015). Relational egalitarians such as Anderson (2012a, pp. 52–53, 2017) and Schuppert (2015a) suggest that epistemic injustice can be understood as falling within the remit of relational inequality (see also Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, p. 64).

Finally, while much of the focus of the relational literature has been on attitudes toward others, the literature also makes reference to self-regarding attitudes as a possible component of relational equality. Wolff (2015b, p. 24, emphasis added), for example, states that “social inequality is, in part at least, constituted by the attitudes people have to others and to themselves” and singles out servility as one of the self-regarding attitudes to which relational egalitarians are opposed. Individuals’ self-respect is an attitude that several relational egalitarians see as important for relational equality. For Miller (1997, p. 199) and Fourie (2015, p. 88), it seems to be implied by the definition of relational equality that individuals regard themselves as equal. Perhaps most explicitly, Schemmel (2011, p. 366) sees relational equality as ultimately grounded in a commitment to individual self-respect: “Relational egalitarians … put forward a particular model of social and political relationships as required by justice on grounds of self-respect”— though he has also argued that a concern for self-respect may not issue the kind of demanding egalitarian requirements that the literature assumes (Schemmel, 2019).

Another dimension that plays a role in at least some accounts of relational equality is the idea that the attitudes expressed by agents falls within the purview of relational egalitarianism. Perhaps most explicitly, Anderson (1999, p. 289) notes that “the most fundamental test any egalitarian theory must meet” is “that its principles express equal respect and concern for all citizens” and describes her own account of equality as capturing “the expressive demands of equal respect.” Expressive theories, Anderson and Pildes (2000, p. 1504) note, tell “actors — whether individuals, associations, or the State — to act in ways that express appropriate attitudes toward various substantive values.” Importantly, people can express attitudes they do not have, and have attitudes without expressing them, so this requirement is distinct from the attitudinal implications of relational equality discussed earlier.

What exactly does the expressive requirement entail? Relational egalitarians have begun to spell out the idea of expressive requirements particularly in relation to the demands relational egalitarianism may place on institutions. They provide less detail on what they think this implies for individuals, even though the expressive dimension of relational equality is endorsed for institutions and individuals alike by Anderson and Pildes (2000), who provide perhaps the most sustained account of the expressive dimension of relational equality. They suggest that individuals can express different mental states, such as beliefs or attitudes, through their actions. For example, an anti-war protestor may burn a flag to express opposition to a government policy, or—to provide an example that relates to the inter-personal context—a sneer may be used to express contempt for an interlocutor (Anderson & Pildes, 2000).

In earlier work, though not explicitly as part of her account of relational equality, Anderson (1993, p. 17) describes a direct link between what it means to value something and to express certain attitudes toward it: “to adequately care about something requires that one express one’s valuation in the world, to embody them in some kind of social reality.” This suggests that, if regarding others as equals involves valuing them as equals, then relating to others as equals requires that this valuation is expressed and communicated.

Anderson emphasizes the importance of social norms for facilitating appropriate expressions, and the possibility that they may not be up for the task of allowing the expression of egalitarian attitudes. For example, Anderson (1993, p. 18) notes that societies do not always have “adequate normative vehicles for expressing heterosexual affection on egalitarian terms.” Existing norms, such as that a man expresses affection for a female partner by wrapping his arm around her, “express a status hierarchy in which the man is the protector and leader, the woman the dependent follower… . Until alternative norms for expressing heterosexual affection can be instituted, egalitarian couples will not be able to express fully and adequately the kind of love they have for each other” (Anderson, 1993, pp. 18–19).

This last quote from Anderson hints at a broader aspect of relational egalitarianism that is worth emphasizing. Although Anderson’s and Scheffler’s approaches to equality clearly have Rawlsian roots, their accounts of equality seem to require a departure from Rawls’s emphasis on the basic structure as the site of justice. The considerations of relational equality discussed here suggest that relational egalitarians must go beyond institutions to consider the sphere of interpersonal relations and individual actions as well as broader structural issues such as social norms and practices: if equality is about relations between individuals, then securing equality must go beyond the traditional, Rawlsian concern for the “basic structure” (see also Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, p. 137; McTernan, 2018)—or, alternatively, the idea of a basic structure must be interpreted in much broader terms than is typically the case in Rawlsian accounts of justice.5

At the same time, relational egalitarians may resist this move. Schemmel (2012, p. 142), whose work has focused primarily on the implications of relational equality for institutions, is concerned about what he calls a “radical” relational egalitarianism that requires individuals to “display attitudes of benevolence and fraternity (or sorority) towards each other both in public and private life.” Egalitarians who subscribe to this view would have reason to seek directly to make relationships between citizens more egalitarian and, Schemmel worries, be unduly intrusive. Schemmel takes this to be a reason for relational egalitarians to focus on institutions rather than individuals. Properly designed institutions can constrain the extent to which individuals can behave toward others in ways that are inconsistent with requirements of equality but Schemmel is reluctant to make individual attitudes themselves the target of egalitarian interventions. Of course, an account of relational equality does not by itself commit us to any specific ways of intervening to bring about more egalitarian outcomes. The relevant question is whether a society in which individuals have thoroughly egalitarian attitudes would be more egalitarian, from the perspective of the appropriate conception of equality, than one where they do not have such attitudes. Schemmel seems to accept that it would, while also being apprehensive about the policies that might be implemented to pursue this goal.

What Does Relational Equality Require of Institutions?

Several relational egalitarians focus on how political institutions relate to citizens in addition to the relationship between individuals, or take institutions as their primary focus. Perhaps most prominently, for Schemmel (2012, p. 125), relational equality is about capturing the “intrinsic moral importance of the way social and political institutions act.” Anderson and Scheffler, too, consider the institutional implications of relational equality.

Requirements of relational equality could apply to institutions in two different ways. First, institutions are instrumental to creating and securing egalitarian relations among individuals. From this perspective, relational equality requires that institutions create the conditions that foster egalitarian relationships between individuals. Along these lines, Schemmel (2011, p. 366) notes that relational egalitarianism “requires that basic social and political institutions enable individuals equally, and adequately, to avoid relationships such as domination and marginalization, and discourage the emergence of objectionable status hierarchies.” Viehoff (2014) notes that one reason for objecting to unequal political control is that this undermines the egalitarian nature of private relationships between citizens. From this perspective, the primary concern is to find those institutions that are most conducive to creating egalitarian relationships—and these may or may not be institutions that are democratic, or that meet other requirements of equality. Institutions that themselves have egalitarian structures may be well positioned to promote egalitarian relations among citizens; but this is not a necessary relationship and there may be circumstances where it is violations of relational equality at the institutional level that best promote egalitarian outcomes.6

Second, relational requirements may apply to institutions directly. Some relational egalitarians emphasize that a concern for the state and other institutions follows naturally from a concern with individual citizens because institutions are ultimately made up of individuals. For example, Anderson (1999, pp. 314 and 313 respectively) notes that “the democratic state is nothing more than citizens acting collectively,” and that democracy is a “collective self-determination by means of open discussion among equals, in accordance with rules acceptable to all.” Similarly, Gheaus (2016, p. 55) describes the “relational features of a society” as “how its members treat each other as citizens, either directly in personal interactions or through the mediation of social institutions.” Schemmel also endorses a direct application of relational requirements but does not ground them in the connection between individuals and institutions. Rather, on his account, institutions can be seen as collective actors to whom requirements of relational equality can apply directly (see Schemmel, 2012).7

While it is worth distinguishing between the instrumental and direct considerations, relational egalitarians can, and do, think that institutions must be evaluated both with respect to how well they enable egalitarian relationships between citizens and how well they meet relational requirements independently (e.g., McTernan, O’Neill, Schemmel, & Schuppert, 2016). For relational egalitarians, both of these considerations—instrumental and direct—seem to play a role in determining what relational equality requires of institutions.

What, then, are the specific requirements of relational equality when it comes to institutions? The instrumental perspective will be left to the side here because it is effectively an empirical question about which institutions are best suited to bring about egalitarian relations among citizens. When it comes to the direct approach, relational egalitarians have—as in the context of relationships between individuals—spelt out in rather different ways what it may mean for institutions to treat and regard its citizens as equals.

In very broad strokes, relational equality requires that states treat citizens with equal concern. Pogge (2004, p. 147) notes that “a liberal society, or state, ought to treat all its citizens equally in terms of help and hindrances.” Anderson (2010a, p. 2) notes that “democratic political institutions should be equally responsive to the interests and concerns of, and equally accountable to, all citizens.” More specifically, many of the possible implications of relational equality for individual attitudes and conduct discussed in “What Does Relational Equality Require of Individuals” have also been raised for institutions. Anderson (1999, p. 302) argues that requirements with respect to justification also apply at the state level: when controversial or potentially problematic policies are introduced, citizens are owed an acceptable explanation. Schemmel (2011) endorses this idea as well—and notes that this has potentially far-reaching implications because justification is also owed for any distributive inequalities created by institutional action.

Schemmel and Anderson also consider it an explicit implication of relational equality that institutions express appropriate attitudes toward citizens. (Recall that expressing an attitude need not coincide with having that attitude.) Anderson and Pildes (2000, p. 1508) provide perhaps the most sustained account of what this may require as they argue that actions must be evaluated “in terms of how well they express certain intentions, attitudes or other mental states.” In particular, following Dworkin (1977), they argue that state action must “express equal concern and respect” for all individuals, as well as “a collective understanding of all citizens as equal members of the state, all equally part of ‘us’, notwithstanding racial, ethnic, or religious differences” (Anderson & Pildes, 2000, p. 1520, emphasis omitted). Their account particularly singles out state action that signals to members of racialized or minority groups that they are not full and equal members of the community. For example, for an institution to place Christian symbols on public property during Christmas time expresses a conception of the political community that is not fully inclusive of non-Christians: “The legislators fail to acknowledge the insider status of non-Christians in a context that demands such acknowledgment, and thereby withdraw from non-Christians the social status of fully included citizens” (Anderson & Pildes, 2000, p. 1550).

Schemmel (2012, p. 124) draws on Anderson and Pildes’s account to develop his idea that “what is primarily justice relevant about the way institutions treat people is the attitude towards individuals and groups that is expressed in institutional action.” He proposes that institutions, through their actions, can express “implicit judgements of worth” of citizens. What is more, different attitudes expressed—such as hostility, contempt, or neglect—may imply violations of relational equality of different magnitudes. Anderson, Pildes, and Schemmel agree that the attitudes expressed are distinct from the outcomes the action produces. State action can be unjust for expressive reasons even if it happens to have positive consequences (Schemmel, 2012, pp. 140–141).

While the general idea seems compelling, spelling out what attitudes are actually expressed by specific state actions is far from straightforward and the literature is only just beginning to develop some of the possible approaches to this question. For example, different accounts of the role, if any, that actual attitudes and intentions on the part of individuals responsible for specific state action should play have been proposed, as well as different arguments with respect to whether or not the expressive content of an action must be recognized by its audience (Voigt, 2018).

This discussion highlights the wide variety of different requirements that relational egalitarians have emphasized as part of their views. Where does this leave the relational egalitarian? The different requirements of relational equality identified by different theorists do not necessarily run together. For example, as Lippert-Rasmussen (2018, p. 57) notes, Scheffler’s deliberative constraint can be satisfied in a context where people do not relate as equals in other ways, for instance when there are significant status hierarchies, or when people are motivated by problematic attitudes such as pity. To the extent that relational egalitarians endorse multiple requirements of relational equality, this also opens up the possibility of conflicting requirements. For example, there may be policies that fall foul of expressive requirements but that make relations among citizens more egalitarian (Voigt, 2018). The section “Pluralism” returns to this issue.

Why Does Relational Equality Matter?

An important question about relational equality is why it matters in the first place; the answer to this question has implications for whether a particular scenario is identified as an instance of relational inequality (and, if so, on what grounds) and for what relational egalitarianism actually requires. There are different ways to value relational equality, and relational egalitarians typically assume or endorse more than one of them. In particular, three different ways of thinking about the value of relational equality are identified in the literature.8

First, relational egalitarians typically point to the instrumental value of relational equality: equality is valuable because of its positive effects, particularly its positive effects on individuals. It is good for people to stand in egalitarian relations with others; it is bad for them to be part of inegalitarian relations. Schemmel (2011) is concerned about the negative effects of social inequality on individuals’ self-respect; Fourie (2011) is concerned about the emotional costs, cognitive distortions, and impaired moral capacities (such as reduced empathy) that relational inequality leads to. Scheffler (2003a, p. 19) lists a range of negative effects that social inequalities have: they “compromise human flourishing; they limit personal freedom, corrupt human relationships, undermine self-respect, and inhibit truthful living.” A society of equals, conversely, “supports the mutual respect and the self-respect of its members, encourages freedom of interpersonal exchange, and places no special obstacles in the way of self-understanding or truthful relations among people. It also makes it possible for people to develop a sense of solidarity and of participation in a shared fate without relying on unsustainable myths or forms of false consciousness” (Scheffler, 2005a, p. 19).

Second, relational equality may also matter for non-instrumental, impersonal reasons.9 From this perspective, “the world is a better place if people relate as equals” (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, p. 269), irrespective of any benefits such relations have for individuals. Among relational egalitarians, this way of valuing equality is endorsed by O’Neill, who suggests that “the existence of [egalitarian] social relations should itself be seen as intrinsically valuable, independent of the positive effects that such relations may have for individual welfare” (O’Neill, 2008, p. 130). This is sometimes referred to as a telic interpretation of relational egalitarianism.10

Finally, relational equality can be seen not as having personal or impersonal value, but as a fitting response to individuals’ moral equality: because individuals are all equals, they must relate to each other as such (e.g., Kolodny, 2014; see also Miklosi, 2018, for discussion). From this perspective—which Elford (2017) and Lippert-Rasmussen (2018) refer to as the deontic interpretation—relational equality is a constraint that must be respected rather than a value that should be promoted: relational equality requires that individuals regard and treat each other in certain ways, and this makes some forms of relating to others impermissible.

This understanding of relational equality is particularly clear in Schemmel’s (2011) account, which describes relational inequality as unjust, rather than damaging, treatment. An account of relational equality, for him, must “specify rights and duties that individuals have as members of society” (Schemmel, 2011, p. 366). Anderson (2010b) also insists that injustice must involve wrongful treatment by one agent toward another, rather than an evaluation of states of affairs (she raises this as an objection to distributive theories of equality but the concern applies equally to a purely instrumental understanding of relational equality, which would evaluate states of affairs according to how closely the relations within them come to fully equal treatment).11

Two points are worth emphasizing here. First, as already noted, relational egalitarians often subscribe to more than one reason for valuing equality—and sometimes explicitly endorse this pluralism about the value of equality (e.g., O’Neill, Scheffler, Schemmel). They are very attuned to the damaging effects of social inequality, and instrumental reasons play an important role in many relational egalitarians’ account. At the same time, the instrumental perspective does not fully capture the concern that individuals are wronged when they are not treated as equals so it cannot capture the full picture relational egalitarians typically have in mind (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, p. 169). Deontic considerations also play an important role for many relational egalitarians, as a way of recognizing individuals’ moral equality. The telic perspective is less frequently endorsed though O’Neill mentions it explicitly.

Miklosi (2018) suggests that different reasons for valuing equality may be more or less important in different contexts. For example, in interpersonal relationships, a concern for other people’s wellbeing may be more relevant than the deontic perspective, whereas in a broader social context, the deontic perspective is more prominent. It is plausible, then, to regard relational equality as a complex, pluralist notion that allows for different views on what makes it valuable.

Second, as discussed before, this pluralism comes with the possibility of conflicting implications for relational equality. For example, it seems that from both the instrumental and telic perspectives, there would be reason to maximize the number of egalitarian relations that exist—but this would not make much sense from the deontic perspective (Miklosi, 2018; Tomlin, 2014). What is more, if relational equality is instrumentally valuable for the pursuit of other goals—e.g., because it promotes welfare, self-respect, or individual autonomy—then the value of equality is contingent on there not being more effective non-egalitarian means of pursuing these goals (Tomlin, 2014).

Relational Equality and Distributions

Much of the relational literature has played out in the debate between relational and distributive egalitarians, with relational egalitarians rejecting the distributive assumption—that equality is about distributive patterns—and proposing relational accounts as an alternative. This section addresses, first, the claim—made by some relational egalitarians—that distributive and relational approaches to equality are inconsistent and that egalitarians must choose between the two. Second, the section considers how distributions should be approached from the perspective of relational equality.

Perhaps the most explicit claim that distributive and relational perspectives on equality are incompatible is proposed by Anderson (2010b) in a paper titled, “The fundamental disagreement between luck egalitarians and relational egalitarians.” (She focuses on luck egalitarianism specifically but much of her argument, including the concern under consideration here, applies to distributive theories more broadly, not just luck egalitarian ones.) She describes a range of inconsistent assumptions that she attributes to relational and distributive egalitarians (luck egalitarians in particular), respectively. Ultimately, she argues, the differences are based on the fact that relational egalitarianism is built on a “second-person” perspective, whereas distributive theories such as luck egalitarianism start from a “third-person” perspective: while relational egalitarians frame their claims about equality as claims that one person can make on another (e.g., someone demands justification from a person who has wronged them), distributive egalitarians make impersonal claims about what is good or bad, and their assessment of a distribution is independent of who is making the assessment.

However, as several commentators have pointed out, Anderson’s argument does not establish that distributive and relational views really are incompatible; it is only when the premise that distributive inequalities are not in and of themselves unjust is added to the description of relational equality that the two views become inconsistent (see Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018; Miklosi, 2018; Moles & Parr, 2019). This opens up the possibility of a pluralist view of equality that gives weight to both relational and distributive considerations.

While distancing themselves from distributive conceptions of equality, relational egalitarians also emphasize that their view of equality has important implications for distributions—but distributive questions must be approached in a way that is very different from that adopted by distributive theorists. Perhaps the most systematic account of the implications of relational equality for distributive questions is offered by Schemmel (2011). He distinguishes between instrumental and intrinsic reasons for caring about distributions. As many relational egalitarians recognize, distributive equality can be instrumentally valuable in the sense that it is conducive to egalitarian relations. For example, both Anderson and Scheffler emphasize that people’s basic needs must be met if they are to participate in society as equals. Distributions that would lead to inegalitarian relations, for example distributions that make some people vulnerable to exploitation by others, or distributions that create distinct social classes, are also problematic from the perspective of relational equality (Anderson, 2008b).

In addition, Schemmel emphasizes that there are intrinsic reasons for relational egalitarians to demand equal distributions. As Schemmel (2011, p. 370) argues, societies of equals must start from a presumption that the goods produced by social cooperation are to be distributed equally “because such a presumption expresses equal respect for participants in cooperation who jointly produce basic social goods.” Ensuring an equal distribution of social goods can be a way for institutions to express appropriate attitudes toward citizens (Schemmel, 2012, p. 142). Unequal distributions of natural goods may also appear problematic from this perspective: to the extent that such distributions are shaped by the basic structure of society, any departures from equality to which institutional choices lead require justification (Schemmel, 2011, p. 372). This consideration leaves Schemmel’s approach with far more demanding implications for distributions than were articulated in Anderson’s early work (e.g., Anderson, 1999)— and this aspect of Schemmel’s approach may result in more demanding implications than he himself articulates (see, for example, Voigt & Wester, 2015, on the possible implications of this approach for inequalities in health outcomes).

Anderson (2012a, p. 53) also suggests more demanding distributive implications. She suggests that a distributive inequality is problematic from the perspective of equality “if it causes, embodies, or is a specific consequence of unjust social hierarchy.” This three-pronged approach seems to include the instrumental (“causes”) and expressive considerations (“embodies”) just discussed but also allows that inequalities that are caused by relational inequalities would be problematic (such as those caused by discrimination against specific social groups), even if they do not themselves undermine egalitarian relations or express problematic attitudes. In addition, she has noted that, even when not meeting the conditions just outlined, unequal or bad outcomes can be unjust if there is someone who is responsible for addressing the outcome and fails to do so (Anderson, 2010b, p. 5). This applies even to outcomes that no one can be blamed for causing and so would include inequalities with natural causes (see also Miklosi, 2018, pp. 129–130, for discussion of this passage).

Relational Equality and the Real World

In addition to the possible implications of relational equality for institutions (see section “What Does Relational Equality Require of Institutions?”) and distributions (see section “Relational Equality and Distributions”), the literature has considered what relational equality may require when it comes to specific policy areas and issues. Relational egalitarians often associate themselves with a strong welfare state and state provision of social services such as healthcare, housing, and education (e.g., Fourie, 2016; McTernan et al., 2016), unconditional access to social benefits and welfare payments (e.g., Anderson, 2004b), democratic workplace structures (e.g., Anderson, 2008b; Schuppert, 2015a), the inclusion of marginalized groups (e.g., Wolff, 2015b, 2017) and ensuring that in crucial aspects of public life, such as education, housing and government, there are no divisions between different social groups (e.g., Anderson, 2007, 2010a; Macfarlane, 2018; Satz, 2007; Voigt, 2017).12

However, the precise arguments for such policy conclusions are not always straightforward. For example, it may be difficult to argue for state provision of healthcare services that are not necessary to ensure people’s standing as equals, such as treatment for (moderate) pain or conditions that do not affect individuals’ abilities to function as social equals (Berkey, 2018; Voigt & Wester, 2015).

There are also important questions about the scope of relational equality that are crucial for determining its requirements in the real world. First, is relational equality limited to agents who are members of the same political community? Relational egalitarians often seem to assume that theories apply to members of the same political community, but some of their views also suggest that at least some requirements of relational equality may extend beyond our co-citizens (see Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018, pp. 146–153). It may be intuitive to think that the requirement of relating to others as equals presupposes that it applies only among those who stand in sufficiently close relations to one another. But, first, recall that relational equality also has an attitudinal component; it includes the idea of equal regard for others, which may well go beyond those with whom individuals can be said to interact in certain ways. Second, even if requirements of relational equality are restricted to those with whom individuals stand in particular relations, it is not clear why this would single out co-citizens rather than the significantly smaller community of people with whom one actually interacts on a daily basis—or the much broader group of individuals with whom one interacts, if indirectly, as part of an interconnected, “global community” (Nath, 2014; see also Nath, 2015).

Second, what does relational equality imply for those whose cognitive capacities prevent them from treating others as equals? While some relational egalitarians assume that relational equality requires that individuals with cognitive disabilities be regarded as equal members of society (Wolff, 2010), not all accounts lend themselves to this idea. In particular, this is the case when relational equality is linked to the idea of reciprocity, as it is for Scheffler (2015, pp. 24 and 31 respectively), who notes that “a society of equals is characterized by a reciprocal commitment on the part of each member to treat the equally important interests of every other member as exerting equal influence on social decisions” and that “the relationship will not have an egalitarian character if one of the parties exhibits the relevant attitudes and dispositions and the other does not. The attitudes and dispositions must hold reciprocally.” If this claim is accepted, then requirements of relational equality can extend only to those who can have the required attitudes and dispositions, thereby excluding individuals who lack the capacities required to do so, such as individuals with severe cognitive disabilities.


On many of the questions identified here, relational egalitarians often adopt more than one answer, either implicitly or explicitly. This suggests that relational egalitarianism is best understood as a complex view that involves pluralism at several distinct levels. First, relational equality has been cashed out in terms of a wide variety of requirements, at both individual and institutional levels, involving attitudinal, behavioral and expressive components, and sometimes defined primarily in negative terms, as the absence of (problematic) hierarchies (see section “What Does Relational Equality Require?”). Not all relational egalitarians are committed to the same interpretation of what is required for relational equality, and several seem open to the idea that more than one requirement (or set of requirements) is necessary or sufficient for relational equality to obtain.

Second, when specifying what is required for relational equality to obtain and identifying which outcomes are problematic from the perspective of relational equality, relational egalitarians often rely on multiple criteria. This is particularly clear in Schemmel’s distinction between instrumental and intrinsic concerns when it comes to distributions (see section “Relational Equality and Distributions”), in the reliance on both instrumental and direct considerations when it comes to the requirements institutions may have to meet (see section “What Does Relational Equality Require of Institutions?”), and in Anderson’s (at least) three-pronged account of what makes particular outcomes unjust (see section “Relational Equality and Distributions”).

Third, relational egalitarians often commit to more than one reason for valuing equality. In particular, both instrumental and deontic approaches typically play an important role in the positions developed by different relational egalitarians (see section “Why Does Relational Equality Matter?”).

Of course, none of this makes relational egalitarianism an incoherent position. However, pluralist approaches create the possibility of conflicting requirements. So far, relational egalitarians have not addressed this possibility or offered accounts of how best to address such conflicts.

Finally, the relationship between relational equality and other values also requires further specification. For Scheffler (2015), the definition of equality must draw on values such as reciprocity and respect. Other relational egalitarians seem to be committed to a pluralist account that sees relational equality as one value, potentially to be traded off against others (evident also in some of the approaches to evaluating hierarchies; see section “What Does Relational Equality Require of Individuals?”). Once the assumption that relational and distributive accounts of equality are incompatible with one another is rejected, a pluralist vision of equality that gives weight to both relational and distributive considerations becomes a possibility (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018; Wolff, 1998, also adopts such a pluralist view).


Two broader points emerge from this article. First, while relational egalitarians capture an intuitive idea about what it may mean for a society to be genuinely egalitarian, many questions about the value of relational equality and its implications have yet to be answered by its proponents. The literature is only just beginning to spell out which criteria must be met, and which ones need not be met, in order for a society (or population) to be one of equals. We also need a clearer account of how the different elements that may form part of a relational idea of equality belong together for different proponents. Second, relational egalitarians are far from unified in what they take relational equality to require. The category “relational egalitarianism” contains a number of different positions that may or may not be linked to one another, and must not lead us to lose sight of the distinctions between the views defended by different relational egalitarians (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2018; Tomlin, 2014).


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  • 1. There has been some discussion in the literature about the overlap between the concerns of relational egalitarians and those of (neo-)republicans, such as Pettit (1997), who understand freedom in terms of non-domination. Despite this overlap, I take these to be distinct positions. For discussion, see Anderson (2018), Garrau & Laborde (2015), Schuppert (2015b).

  • 2. More broadly, relational egalitarians often emphasize the importance of employing a non-ideal, “real-world” methodology when dealing with questions of equality—e.g., Anderson (2010a), Wolff (2015b, 2019).

  • 3. Darwall’s distinction between recognition and appraisal respect is a frequent reference point for relational egalitarians; see, for example, Mason (2015); McTernan (2012); Schemmel (2019).

  • 4. While Lippert-Rasmussen (2018, pp. 203–204) thinks that Scheffler’s deliberative constraint amounts to a position distinct from relational egalitarianism because it is about dispositions not relations, this article assumes a broader understanding of “relational,” which can include dispositions.

  • 5. Scheffler (2005b) offers a somewhat different interpretation of Rawls’s basic structure requirement, according to which the requirement is not meant to relieve individuals of duties of justice but supports a wide range of values and responsibilities to apply at the individual level. There may also be reasons for thinking that the basic structure does have implications for social norms and practices (Ronzoni, 2008).

  • 6. In his account of republican freedom, Pettit (1997) adopts a similar approach when it comes to institutions. He cashes this out in terms of the distinction between deontological and consequentialist or teleological approaches to theories of freedom. From a deontological approach, freedom (as non-interference or non-domination) is a constraint on what states can do; from a consequentialist or teleological perspective, a goal to be pursued. He also notes that on a consequentialist approach, institutions may not have to comply with requirements of non-domination, if that is necessary to increase non-domination overall: “if the cause of maximizing non-domination does require such departures from the perfect constitution—from the constitution that exemplifies non-domination in each and every feature of its design—then it would seem only natural to tolerate those departures; it would be precious, even fetishistic, to insist on remaining faithful to the abstract ideal” (Pettit, 1997, p. 102).

  • 7. Scheffler’s view on this is ambiguous. He rejects Dworkin’s approach of requiring that institutions treat individuals as equals (along the lines of the “direct” view described here) because this does not rule out an autocratic system and does not require equal relations among citizens (see Scheffler, 2003a, pp. 35–36). Instead, he notes that his own view “begins from the question of what relationships among equals are like and goes on from there to consider what kinds of social and political institutions are appropriate to a society of equals” (Scheffler, 2003a, p. 37; see also Scheffler, 2003b, pp. 203–206). This passage is not sufficient for establishing that Scheffler endorses an instrumental approach to institutions, but he is clear that equality is first and foremost about the relations between individuals, not about how institutions treat individuals.

  • 8. In making these distinctions, I draw on Elford (2017), Lippert-Rasmussen (2018), Miklosi, (2018), Tomlin (2014).

  • 9. On the distinction between personal and impersonal value, see Temkin (2003).

  • 10. Tomlin (2014) raises some concerns about the coherence of this interpretation of the value of relational equality.

  • 11. There is some ambiguity in her view, as she also allows that some outcomes are bad for reasons other than equality and that it can be unjust when agents do not seek to address these outcomes; see discussion in section “Relational equality and distributions.” In her work on structural injustice, Anderson (2010b) also explicitly allows that injustice can come about through processes that do not involve wrongdoing.

  • 12. Some of Anderson’s positions stand out here because she takes a more positive stance toward markets than other relational egalitarians. For example, she does not think that equality requires opposition to private schooling, though states may have to work to weaken its negative effects on social solidarity (Anderson, 2004a).