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Individual Valuing of Social Equality in Political and Personal Relationships


Social egalitarianism holds that individuals ought to have equal power over outcomes within relationships. Egalitarian philosophers have argued for this ideal by appealing to (sometimes implicit) features of political society. This way of grounding the social egalitarian principle renders it dependent on empirical facts about political culture. In particular, egalitarians have argued that social equality matters to citizens in political relationships in a way analogous to the value of equality in a marriage. In this paper, we show how egalitarian philosophers are committed to psychological premises, and then illustrate how to test the social egalitarian’s empirical claims. Using a nationally representative survey experiment, we find that citizens will sometimes prioritize equality over competing values, but that the weight of social equality diminishes when moving from personal to political cases. These findings raise questions for thinking about how to explain the normative significance of social equality.

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  1. 1.

    “Relational equality” and “social equality” are sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. We will use “relational” to refer to equality among persons in specific relationships (including relationships with only two members) and “social” to refer to equality among larger collections of persons.

  2. 2.

    A relatively early entry in this literature is Hochschild 1986.

  3. 3.

    Such a view might be affirmed by civil libertarians, among others.

  4. 4.

    On the relationship between the value of equality in morality and politics, see, generally, Scheffler 2010.

  5. 5.

    Although this characterization meant to offer an ideal of marriage, it is also intended as a conceptual truth. If a relationship counts as a marriage, then it ought to meet this ideal. A challenge for the conceptual claim is that it will likely not fit with many groups’ experiences within seemingly real marriages. To deny that these relationships are marriages would be nontrivially revisionary.

  6. 6.

    Here Lister follows Ebels-Duggan 2008 (on marriage) and 2010 (on political community).

  7. 7.

    Our own cases, presented in the next section, will take a step toward filling this gap.

  8. 8.

  9. 9.

    An exception is Kolodny 2014a, 2014b.

  10. 10.

    In brief: the social egalitarian could say that the relationships are different in a world of social equality, even if they do not appear different in any observable way. Although extensionally equivalent, two relationships have some morally relevant difference if one obtains in a world with social equality, and the other does not. This makes it appear that there is some hyperintensional variation between them, and that this variation bears moral significance. Perhaps the social egalitarian could develop the view in this way, but doing so would carry its own set of argumentative challenges.


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For comments and suggestions, we’re grateful to Christopher Karpowitz, Lisa Argyle, Quin Monson, and Jessica Flanigan.


We received no external funding to conduct the research reported in this paper.

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Correspondence to Ryan W. Davis.

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Davis, R.W., Preece, J. Individual Valuing of Social Equality in Political and Personal Relationships. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021).

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  • Egalitarianism
  • Ethics
  • Marriage
  • Rawls
  • Justice