Freedom and Equality


Freedom and equality are typically presented as opposing values (in e.g. Sapiens, The Lessons of History). The different conceptions of each term, and how they’re interrelated, are explored in greater depth below. While various conceptions of equality do restrict individual liberties, the moral significance of these restrictions is subjective and depends on one’s values. Egalitarians view these restrictions as insignificant and worthwhile to enable others to enjoy a good life.


“There is a whole range of possible interpretations or ‘conceptions’ of the single concept of liberty”, thus the overview below is incomplete; but it’s good enough for a model to add depth to the question (of whether freedom and equality are opposed).

  Negative freedom Positive freedom Republican freedom
Tag line “noninterference”; “freedom from …” “opportunities”; “capacity to …” “non-domination”
Description no one interferes with your actions has a rich set of opportunities available; possibility to take control of one’s life not subject to another’s arbitrary & unaccountable will; the absence of any structural dependence on arbitrary power or domination
Examples freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of speech hierarchies like classism, sexism, racism will inhibit positive freedom slaves would have negative freedom but not republican freedom if they are owned by a master who does not whip them, even though he is in a position to do so
  • these types of freedom are not mutually exclusive; can enjoy two of them at the expense of the third
    • for example, it’s possible to be institutionally oppressed without directly interfering with actions – i.e. it’s possible to lack republican freedom while maintaining negative freedom
  • the positive and negative conceptions of freedom are credited to Isaiah Berlin, and the republican conception to Philip Pettit
  • additional context and definitions are included from Elizabeth Anderson and other sources as linked above
  • to sustain a free society over time, Anderson claims we should accept priority of republican over negative liberty (which endorses equality of authority)
  • Anderson also claims “we should be skeptical of attempts to operationalize the conditions for nondomination in formal terms. Powerful agents are constantly devising ways to skirt around formal constraints to dominate others. Republican freedom is a sociologically complex condition not easily encapsulated in any simple set of necessary and sufficient conditions, nor easily realized through any particular set of laws.”

Why favor positive or republican over negative freedom?


To block arguments that freedom requires substantial material equality, libertarians typically argue that rights to negative liberty override or constrain claims to positive liberty. This chapter will argue that, to the extent that libertarians want to support private property rights in terms of the importance of freedom to individuals, this strategy fails, because the freedom-based defense of private property rights depends on giving priority to positive or republican over negative freedom. Next, it is argued that the core rationale for inalienable rights depends on considerations of republican freedom. A regime of full contractual alienability of rights—on the priority of negative over republican freedom—is an unstable basis for a free society. It tends to shrink the domains in which individuals interact as free and independent persons, and expand the domains in which they interact on terms of domination and subordination. To sustain a free society over time, we should accept the priority of republican over negative liberty. This is to endorse a kind of authority egalitarianism. The chapter concludes with some reflections on how the values of freedom and equality bear on the definition of property rights. The result will be a qualified defense of some core features of social democratic orders.

Further detail:

Arguments for the priority of negative over positive freedom with respect to property rights run into more fundamental difficulties. A regime of perfect negative freedom with respect to property is one of Hohfeldian privileges only, not of rights. A negative liberty is a privilege to act in some way without state interference or liability for damages to another for the way one acts. The correlate to A’s privilege is that others lack any right to demand state assistance in constraining A’s liberty to act in that way. There is nothing conceptually incoherent in a situation where multiple persons have a privilege with respect to the same rival good: consider the rules of basketball, which permit members of either team to compete for possession of the ball, and even to “steal” the ball from opponents. If the other team exercises its liberty to steal the ball, the original possessor cannot appeal to the referee to get it back.

No sound argument for a regime of property rights can rely on considerations of negative liberty alone. Rights entail that others have correlative duties. To have a property right to something is to have a claim against others, enforceable by the state, that they not act in particular ways with respect to that thing. Property rights, by definition, are massive constraints on negative liberty: to secure the right of a single individual owner to some property, the negative liberty of everyone else—billions of people—must be constrained. Judged by a metric of negative liberty alone, recognition of property rights inherently amounts to a massive net loss of total negative freedom. The argument applies equally well to rights in one’s person, showing again the inability of considerations of negative liberty alone to ground rights. “It is impossible to create rights, to impose obligations, to protect the person, life, reputation, property, subsistence, or liberty itself, but at the expense of liberty” (Bentham, 1838–1843: I.1, 301).

(The above paragraph also makes the case for the conclusion at the end of this post.)

What could justify this gigantic net loss of negative liberty? If we want to defend this loss as a net gain in overall freedom, we must do so by appealing to one of the other conceptions of freedom—positive freedom, or republican freedom. Excellent arguments can be provided to defend private property rights in terms of positive freedom. Someone who has invested their labor in some external good with the aim of creating something worth more than the original raw materials has a vital interest in assurance that they will have effective access to this good in the future. Such assurance requires the state’s assistance in securing that good against others’ negative liberty interest in taking possession of it. To have a claim to the state’s assistance in securing effective access to a good, against others’ negative liberty interests in it, is to have a right to positive freedom.

Considerations of republican freedom also supply excellent arguments for private property. In a system of privileges alone, contests over possession of external objects would be settled in the interests of the stronger parties. Because individuals need access to external goods to survive, the stronger could then condition others’ access on their subjection to the possessors’ arbitrary will. Only a system of private property rights can protect the weaker from domination by the stronger. The republican argument for rights in one’s own body follows even more immediately from such considerations, since to be an object of others’ possession is per se to be dominated by them.

(All quotes are from Elizabeth Anderson.)


Similarly to freedom, (in)equality is not just a single principle, but rather a complex group of principles that form the basis of today’s egalitarianism. Different principles yield different answers, and no single notion of equality can sweep the field. The sections below provide an overview of some of its different conceptions; they are incomplete similar to freedom above, but are sufficient models to add depth to the question.

Relational Equality

Relational equality aims to reduce or eliminate certain status differences in social interactions. Some of its forms include (from Elizabeth Anderson):

  Equality of standing Equality of esteem Equality of authority
Hierarchy (i.e. the opposite of equality) of this type looks like interests of superiors > interests of inferiors esteem of few > esteem of rest arbitrary commands to subordinates who must comply
*In the lens of distributive inequality, proponents of this relational type are concerned with… distributive justice (rules that determine fair distribution of economic gains, to help those less well off) glorifying the rich due to wealth (and stigmatizing the poor) government by the wealthy
Example: members of society… are treated as equals by the state and in institutions of civil society are recognized as bearing equal dignity and respect have equal votes and access to political participation in democratic states
  • these three types of hierarchy (i.e. the opposite of equality) usually reinforce each other (i.e. all three types of hierarchy at once)
  • *these connections between relational equality and distributive equality are mainly causal

Distributive Equality

Theories of distributive equality offer accounts of what should be equalized in the economic sphere.

Notes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

  • most can be understood as applications of the presumption of equality, where everyone should get an equal share of the distribution unless certain types of differences are relevant, and justify (through universally acceptable reasons) unequal shares
  • the equality required in the economic sphere is complex, taking account of several positions that – each according to the presumption of equality – justify a turn away from equality
  • a salient problem here is what constitutes justified exceptions to equal distribution of goods, the main subfield in the debate over adequate conceptions of distributive equality and its currency
  • the following factors are usually considered eligible for justified unequal treatment:
    • need or differing natural disadvantages (e.g. disabilities)
    • existing rights or claims (e.g. private property)
    • differences in the performance of special services (e.g. desert, efforts, or sacrifices)
    • efficiency
    • compensation for direct and indirect or structural discrimination (e.g. affirmative action)
  • every effort to interpret the concept of equality and apply its principles (e.g. presumption of equality) demands a precise measure of the parameters of equality – we need to know the dimensions within which the striving for equality is morally relevant
  • here is an overview of the seven most prominent conceptions of distributive equality, with some discussion on their objections

Notes from Elizabeth Anderson:

  • any attempt to enforce strict material equality across large populations under modern economic conditions would require a totalitarian state; this is “true and of great historical importance” (e.g. communism), but virtually no one today advocates for this
  • concern for distributive justice—specifically, how the rules that determine the fair division of gains from social cooperation should be designed—can be cast in terms of the question: what rules would free people of equal standing choose, with an eye to also sustaining their equal social relations?

Absent from this list of conceptions of equality is any notion of equality considered as a bare pattern in the distribution of goods, independent of how those goods were brought about, the social relations through which they came to be possessed, or the social relations they tend to cause. Some people think that it is a bad thing if one person is worse off than another due to sheer luck (Arneson, 2000; Temkin, 2003). I do not share this intuition. Suppose a temperamentally happy baby is born, and then another is born that is even happier. The first is now worse off than the second, through sheer luck. This fact is no injustice and harms no one’s interests. Nor does it make the world a worse place. Even if it did, it would still be irrelevant in a liberal political order, as concern for the value of the world apart from any connection to human welfare, interests, or freedom fails even the most lax standard of liberal neutrality.

Relationships between these types

graph TB subgraph freedom[Freedom] negative_freedom["Negative
(#quot;noninterference#quot;)"] positive_freedom["Positive
(#quot;opportunities#quot;)"] republican_freedom["Republican
(#quot;non-domination#quot;)"] takes_priority_over(["takes priority over"]) end subgraph equality[Equality] esteem_equality[Esteem] standing_equality[Standing] authority_equality[Authority] end republican_freedom --> takes_priority_over --> negative_freedom takes_priority_over -->|"doing so endorses"| authority_equality authority_equality -->|"(lack of) causes
most important infringements of*"| republican_freedom republican_freedom -->|"requires"| authority_equality republican_freedom ---|"#quot;deep affinity#quot;,
but not conceptually identical*"| authority_equality

*There is a deep affinity between republican freedom as nondomination and authority egalitarianism. These are not conceptually identical. Domination can be realized in an isolated, transient interpersonal case (consider a kidnapper and his victim). Authoritarian hierarchy is institutionalized, enduring, and group-based. Yet authority hierarchies cause the most important infringements of republican freedom. Historically, the radical republican tradition, from the Levellers to the radical wing of the Republican party through Reconstruction, saw the two causes of freedom and equality as united: to be free was to not be subject to the arbitrary will of others. This required elimination of the authoritarian powers of dominant classes, whether of the king, feudal landlords, or slaveholders. Republican freedom for all is incompatible with authoritarian hierarchy and hence requires some form of authority egalitarianism.

General diagram of concepts

graph TB freedom["Freedom"] relational_equality["Relational
equality"] conventional_equality["Conventional ideas
of equality
(e.g. distributive)"] hierarchy["Hierarchy"] oppression["Oppression
(of all forms of freedom)"] freedom ---|"Harari claims are opposed;
Anderson claims not"| relational_equality freedom ---|"opposed
(Anderson)"| oppression relational_equality -->|"egalitarians oppose hierarchies
and aim to replace w/
institutions w/ greater equality"| hierarchy relational_equality -->|"causal"| conventional_equality hierarchy -->|"can lead to*"| oppression

*See this model for the connection between hierarchy and oppression

Are freedom and equality fundamentally opposed?

It depends on how you view freedom and how you view equality. Are personal liberties restricted to uphold the types of relational equality defined above? Yes - there is now a smaller spectrum of acceptable actions. The same goes for economic liberty (the freedom to make contracts, acquire property, and exchange goods) when upholding distributive (i.e. economic) equality.

But are those restrictions significant? That depends on your stance on egalitarianism. If you value equality as a fundamental goal of justice, you would be willing to make (relatively insignificant) sacrifices of these freedoms (i.e. would not want to take actions that oppress others) so others can enjoy a good life.

Quoting Anderson, “moderate egalitarianism of the social democratic type has proved compatible with democracy, extensive civil liberties, and substantial if constrained market freedoms. … the ideal of a free society of equals is not an oxymoron: not only is relational equality not fundamentally opposed to freedom, in certain senses equality is needed for freedom. Inequality upsets liberty.”

Additionally, Giebler and Merkel have empirically concluded both freedom and equality can be maximized at the same time.