Relational Egalitarianism: A Critique

Stream: Panel 66 - Political Theory: Problems of Liberal Egalitarianism 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 9.00 am – 10.30 am


This paper examines whether relational egalitarianism is a compelling interpretation of the egalitarian ideal, focusing on the work of its two leading exponents, Elizabeth Anderson and Samuel Scheffler. It distinguishes between two distinct ways of understanding relational egalitarianism: 1) as a substantive principle of egalitarian justice oriented around the need to promote equality of social status; and 2) as a justificatory principle used to generate substantive principles of justice. It argues that both versions of relational egalitarianism are unsatisfactory. When interpreted as a substantive principle of egalitarian justice, relational egalitarianism fails to provide an adequate foundation for the egalitarian commitment to distributive inequality. When understood as a justificatory principle, it also fails to provide a satisfactory framework for thinking about questions of justice. However, rather than rejecting relational egalitarianism outright, the paper will argue that it should be understood more modestly as one component of a pluralistic account of egalitarian justice that incorporates relational and distributive dimensions. Moreover, this account is best understood in line with the meta-theoretical approach to justice endorsed by G.A. Cohen, which is strongly opposed by most relational egalitarians, particularly Anderson and Scheffler.


Nicholas Barry (Presenter), La Trobe University
Nicholas Barry is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of political theory, political institutions, and Australian politics. He is currently working on a number of projects focused on contemporary debates over egalitarian justice, constitutional conventions, and the National Human Right Framework.