Egalitarianism is an ethical theory that defends that a situation is best if the happiness present in that situation is distributed as equally as possible. According to some egalitarians, equality is good because inequality is bad in itself or because it’s unfair. According to others, equality is good, and inequality bad, because we should give priority to the interests of those who fare worst. This last type of egalitarianism is often called prioritarianism, as it prioritizes helping those who are worst off.

So, according to egalitarianism, it’s better if everyone lives at a satisfying level of happiness, rather than if some enjoy paradisiacal conditions while others are in a very bad situation. What matters in egalitarianism is not only that the amount of happiness be as high as possible, but also that happiness is experienced, and suffering not experienced, by as large a portion of the population as possible.

Egalitarianism has been criticized as follows. Most of us would agree that if increasing equality meant greatly decreasing happiness (including the happiness of those who are already the worst off), then doing so would not be ethical. The claim could then be made that equality isn’t really that important, and that only the sum of happiness is. However, egalitarians reject this claim because they care not only about equality, but also about happiness. Therefore, they can agree that in a situation such as the one described above it wouldn’t be worth it to reduce everyone’s happiness in order to have less inequality. But, unlike some others such as utilitarians or right theorists, they also care about equality. So, against utilitarians, they argue that decreasing total happiness is worth it if it means a significant increase in the happiness of those who fare the worst. And, against right theorists, they claim that no right should be respected if it prohibits improving the situation of the worst-off.

Since egalitarianism is concerned with equality, it is opposed to any view that defends discrimination against beings whose lives can be good or bad. Egalitarianism thus entails that the interests of nonhuman animals must be taken into account, as authors such as Ingmar Persson,1 Peter Vallentyne,2 Nils Holtug,3 and before them the 19th century pioneer Lewis Gompertz4 have pointed out. Egalitarianism has important consequences for nonhuman animals because countless billions of them are subjected each year to discrimination and neglect, which means that they are worse off in comparison to most humans.

Other theories also defend nonhuman animals from the harms they suffer because they claim that it’s not justified to cause them harm or to not help them when they need it. Egalitarianism accepts this, but claims that we have additional reasons to care for the interests of nonhuman animals. This is because currently, the majority of humans enjoy far more happiness than nonhuman animals. To be sure, some humans suffer terribly. However, if we consider majorities, the situation of nonhuman animals is clearly worse than that of humans. Those who are used as resources by humans suffer terrible fates. Billions of animals are exploited on farms in which they suffer terribly their whole lives. Plus, their lives are very short. They are killed at the earliest profitable opportunity so they can be eaten and used for other purposes. If we consider the lives of animals living in the wild, the picture is also very far from being idyllic. They suffer significantly and in many ways, and their lives normally end abruptly soon after they are born.

The above defenses of egalitarianism suggest that not only should we consider or defend nonhuman animals, but we should make defending them our main concern. Because their situation is far worse than ours, egalitarianism implies that the satisfaction of nonhuman interests should become a priority.

Further readings

Arneson, R. J. (1989) “Equality and equal opportunity for welfare”, Philosophical Studies, 56, pp. 77-93.

Arneson, R. J. (1999) “What, if anything, renders all humans morally equal”, in Jamieson, D. (ed.) Singer and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 103-128.

Berlin, I. (1955-1956) “Equality”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56, pp. 301-326.

Casal, P. (2006) “Why sufficiency is not enough”, Ethics, 116, pp. 296-326.

Cohen, G. A. (1989) “On the currency of egalitarian justice”, Ethics, 99, pp. 906-944.

Crisp, R. (2003) “Equality, priority, and compassion”, Ethics, 113, pp. 745-763.

Dworkin, R. (1981a) “What is equality? Part 1: Equality of welfare”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10, pp. 228-240.

Dworkin, R. (1981b) “What is equality? Part 2: Equality of resources”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10, pp. 283-345.

Faria, C. (2014) “Equality, priority and nonhuman animals”, DILEMATA, 14, pp. 225-236 [accessed on 16 April 2014].

Holtug, N. (2006) “Prioritarianism”, in Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 125-156.

Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006) “An introduction to contemporary egalitarianism”, in Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, op. cit., pp. 1-37.

Horta, O. (2016) “Egalitarianism and animals”, Between the Species, 19, pp. 109-145 [accessed on 20 August 2016].

McKerlie, D. (1994) “Equality and priority”, Utilitas, 6, pp. 25-42.

McMahan, J. (1996) “Cognitive disability, misfortune, and justice”, Philosophy and Public Affairs , 25, pp. 3-35.

Parfit, D. (1995) Equality or priority, Kansas: University of Kansas.

Persson, I. (2007) “A defence of extreme egalitarianism”, in Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, op. cit., pp. 83-97.

Raz, J. (1986) The morality of freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Temkin, L. (1993) Inequality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Temkin, L. (2003) “Equality, priority or what?”, Economics and Philosophy, 19, pp. 61-87.


1 Persson, I. (1993) “A basis for (interspecies) equality”, in Cavalieri, P. & Singer, P. (eds.) The Great Ape Project, New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 183-193.

2 Vallentyne, P. (2005) “Of mice and men: Equality and animals”, Journal of Ethics, 9, pp. 403-433.

3 Holtug, N. (2007) “Equality for animals,” in Ryberg, J.; Petersen, T. S. & Wolf, C. (eds.) New waves in applied ethics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.

4 Gompertz, L. (1997 [1824]) Moral inquiries on the situation of man and of brutes, London: Open Gate.

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