Discuss the idea of ‘complex equality’. - Sleepy Classes IAS Skip to main content

Discuss the idea of ‘complex equality’.

Ques. Discuss the idea of ‘complex equality’.


  • Equality, like many other political ideas, remains what Gallie calls an ‘essentially contested concept.’ The varying understanding of equality by different schools of ideologies has led to multiple basis for devising equality- resources, capability, opportunity, outcome etc. 
  • A significant contribution in this debate comes for Michael Walzer who gives currency to the idea of complex equality. Walzer is an egalitarian but finds himself ill at ease with the intellectual enterprise involved in identifying the single most important metric of equality—welfare, resources or capability. 
  • This enterprise, to him, is somewhat misplaced due to the egalitarians’ unrelenting insistence on a single point of access to the plurality of distributive arrangements. Walzer argues that rather than paying attention distribution of goods we ought to focus on the conception and creation of goods. 
  • According Ashok Acharya, Walzer in his work argues that rather than a set of universally accepted primary goods which need to be fairly distributed across societies as Rawls invoked in his ‘Theory of Justice’, same goods have different meanings and values attached to them in different societies. 
  • For Walzer one has to understand the social meanings attached to a particular good as per its context to come up with an adequate process of distribution. Thus, Walzer argues that every set of goods constitutes a distinct distributive sphere within which only certain criteria of distribution are appropriate. 
  • Walzer maintains that there is no reason to expect that the same distributive standards must prevail in different ‘spheres’ of social life. Thus, the spheres of the market and political power, to take two examples, are distinct and separate. The norms for distributing goods within each are internal to each and ideally should not spill over. 
  • Thus, criteria of distribution of wages in a company can’t be applied to distribution of rights and duties among citizens of a country. For Walzer, while within each sphere there may be inequalities which can be justified on the basis of capability/ hard work of people, it would be problematic if pre-eminence in one sphere disproportionately spills over in another sphere as well. 
  • For example, in India caste hierarchy impacted the economic and educational opportunities available thereby, limiting the potential of the marginalized caste groups that sought to be remedied by tools like affirmative action. 
  • By ensuring separate criteria for every sphere, Walzer through complex equality tries to prevent monopolization and tyranny. However, critics point out the difficulty in putting complex equality to practices on containing barriers in social spheres of life to stop unfair advantages leading to practical hurdles in operation of the same.