What Equality Comes To -- The Principle of Humanity

by Ted Honderich

There is a survey elsewhere with which you should begin, a survey of almost all the main ideas of equality -- What Equality Is Not. It is in fact much of a chapter of my 2005 book Conservatism: Burke to Nozick to Blair?, which is an enlargement and revision of Conservatism. The book seeks to find the distinctions of the tradition of conservatism and also its underlying rationale.What you get below is the culmination of that particular survey, an answer to the question of the very nature of egalitarianism. It is a part of another chapter of the book. It replaces what appeared here previously under the the title 'What Equality Is'. The survey below contains a reference or two to what preceded it in the book. It also fails to contain some back-references to explanatory pages earlier in the book. In a world of perfect websites, it would be more revised. It would be united, too, with another piece, The Principle of Humanity.
    We took it, after putting aside many other objections to the politics
of the left, that what has been close to its standard expression is open to a serious and seemingly fatal objection. That is the objection that this politics, taken as resting on the principle of equality of results, is committed to mere relativities, in fact to irrationality. It is concerned with no more than getting people into certain relative positions, positions of equality. Thus it is committed to having everyone equally well-off when the alternative is having some people still well-off to that extent and others better-off. It is committed, worse, to having everyone equally badly-off when the alternative is having everybody better-off although unequally so. It has to be added that the principle of equal results (p. 000) is not so clear and determinate as it might be.

There is a better expression of the various political traditions of the left, notably democratic socialism. This takes them to be based not on the principle of equality of results but on something related to it but significantly different. In the past this was dignified with the name of being the Principle of Equality. for good reason. But it then transpired there was better reason, of which you will hear, to give it the name the Principle of Humanity. Fundamentally this principle has to do not with treatment, with what is done to and for people, but with satisfaction.

Fundamentally although not exclusively it has to do, that is, with a result of treatment -- the nature or quality of people's lives, satisfaction, well-being, happiness, or freedom. At bottom it has to do with the satisfaction of desires. The Principle of Humanity is directed, more particularly, to the satisfaction of fundamental categories of human desires. It has to do with the satisfaction of those categories of desire that were set out, when we were considering human nature, as giving us most of a general conception of that nature (p. 00). They are, you might say, what defines human nature.

We all want, first, the material means to subsistence, a satisfactory length of life for ourselves and for others close to us. We desire, that is, lifetimes of something like 70 years rather than 35 or 40, full lives rather than half-lives or quarter-lives. We want, second, material goods in addition to those that will merely keep us alive for such a time. These will include things of importance: tolerable homes and environments for a start, pain-relievers, and such lesser items as means of travel. They are not properly described as luxuries. All the categories of desire can rightly be described as desires for freedoms, but the third category is the one most naturally described as having in it desires for certain freedoms and powers. Some fundamental ones are political, others have to do with independence in one's work and other such smaller contexts of life. We want, fourth, respect and self-respect, which we cannot have if we are, say, the victims of class-condescension or racism. We want, fifth, the satisfactions of personal and wider human relationships. Some of these have to do with the family, others with membership of larger groups and a society. Last, we desire the goods of culture. Here we want, among other things, not ignorance or incompetence but the satisfactions of education.

No doubt there are other possible ways of sorting out our fundamental desires, but this will do. The Principle of Humanity is concerned with extents to which these fundamental desires are satisfied. It has to do with different extents of well-being, this being nothing other than the mentioned satisfaction. It is a recommendation with respect to the distribution of this satisfaction or well-being. Its formulation depends on first deciding on a definition of the badly-off, a class of persons who are badly-off. There is room for different decisions here, and somewhat different decisions are in fact made by different traditions within the leftward part of the political spectrum. Certainly there is no fact of the matter that by itself determines who is to count as badly-off, and no surprise or embarrassment in that. The answer to the question 'Who is to decide who is badly-off?' is, of course, 'Anyone proposing to make and use distinctions between different conditions of life.'

Here is one central definition of the badly-off: (1) those who fail to satisfy even the first or subsistence desire, and hence are frustrated in desires of the other categories as well, (2) those who seriously lack further material goods, (3) those who are unsatisfied in terms of freedom and power, (4) those who are unsatisfied in terms of respect and self-respect, and (5) those who are minimally satisfied in all categories but the first.

The Principle of Humanity is roughly to the effect that we should take rational steps that will make well-off those who are badly-off. That is, we should take up and follow policies that are actually effective in removing individuals from the class of the badly-off, and of course are humanly economical -- they do not produce more loss than gain. Further, we should seek to act on these policies by having certain practices of equality.

The first policy is in part that of helping the badly-off without thereby affecting at all the well-off, the remainder of the population. In this case no goods, which is to say no means to satisfaction, are transferred from the well-off to the badly-off. Rather, new means are brought into existence. If this endeavour by itself could be successful, that would be the end of the matter. No question of transfers of goods between the two classes would arise. And, if there remained inequalities within the now universal class of the well-off, the Principle of Humanity would have nothing to say of this state of affairs.

In its other part the first policy is that of transferring goods from the well-off, but goods whose loss would not significantly affect their well-being. It is arguable, to say the least, that there do exist such goods, means to well-being which their possessors do not trouble to use. Again, if these transfers could be successful in achieving the goal of the principle, that would be the end of the matter.

The second policy is that of reducing the number of the badly-off by transferring goods to them from the well-off, with the known effect that this will reduce the well-being of the well-off. Given our earlier scepticism of conservative claims as to an incentive system, we can take this as a real and large possibility, in no way an ill-fated enterprise. That is, we can reduce the number of the badly-off in this

way. This policy may be regarded, in fact, by proponents of the Principle of Humanity, as their most important.

The third policy is a partner to the second, and not much less important. It has to do with what can be granted, that the goal of the principle may be served by having a kind of incentive system, perhaps as well described as a compensation system. It will involve certain favourable inequalities, of limited extent. The policy presupposes that what individuals require, by way of any such inequalities, is certainly no matter of human nature, no matter of iron law. It is properly described, rather, as a matter of their attitudes. If present attitudes have been passed on from generation to generation, they are none the less open to change. To revert to terms used earlier, they have to do with social altruism or rather the lack of it, and of what mainly gives rise to this state of affairs, an absence of social persuasion. The third policy, then, will reduce very greatly the inequalities of incentive or compensation that are expected or demanded by individuals if they are to forward the end of a society. These inequalities are to be reduced, of course, just in order to leave greater resources for the relief of the badly-off.

The fourth policy is implicit in the conception of bad and good lives, particularly in what was said of our first desire. It is also implicit in the first three policies for the avoidance of misery. It is a policy against violence and near-violence -- against wounding, sexual violation, torture, and killing. It is a policy against at least much war. Like other principles against violence, it cannot be without exceptions.

As remarked, the Principle of Humanity is also to the effect that the four policies are to be forwarded by certain practices of equality.

The most important political one begins from one person one vote -- it goes further than that in securing effective democracy. It involves fair restraints on the financing of particular political parties and on their influence by way of the media. Also, there is the non-political practice of equal provision of many material goods and of many opportunities. If we are not in fact perfectly equal, in any of the ways suggested by what was called the principle of natural equality (p. 000), we are sufficiently alike so as to make equal provision, for the most part, a rational practice. That we are alike is the fact of our shared fundamental desires. Still, if these two practices of equality are of the greatest importance, they are not the only practices allowed by the principle. If we are alike, we are also different. It is not always true, evidently, that an equal provision of a good will serve the end of the principle. The sick need what the well do not.

The Principle of Humanity can now be more explicitly stated.

Our end must be to make well-off those who are badly off, by way of certain rational policies: (1) increasing means to well-being and, more surely, transferring means from the better-off that will not affect their well-being, (2) transferring means from the better-off that will affect their well-being, those at the higher levels to be affected first, and observing a certain limit, (3) reducing the necessity of inequalities, and (4) allowing only what can be called, without definition for now, necessary violence. Further, these policies are to be pursued in part by way of  practices of equality.

This is not vulnerable at all to the objection having to do with mere relativities or irrationality. What it recommends is not the goal of people being related in a certain way to one another, being equal. The goal or aim is to get people out of the condition of being badly-off. It is the goal of ending frustration, distress and misery. Certainly, if it is achieved, there will be a large side-effect -- all people being equal in the sense of being other than badly-off. But nothing but woeful or wilful confusion can give anyone the idea that the goal is itself a relational one. In particular, the goal is not an equality. The same is to be said in connection with the mentioned practices of equality. They are greatly important means, but not the end.17 If I am convinced that more democracy is the way to a society in which people do not have to sleep in the streets, and want such a society above all, it is absurd to suppose that in this respect I have democracy as an end-in-itself.

It is as clear that the principle does not entail that we should have everyone only equally well-off if the alternative were everyone unequally better-off. Nor does it entail the worse upshot that we should have everyone equally badly-off if the alternative were everyone being unequally well-off. This is the case if we understand these several terms, 'badly-off' and so on, in the way we have defined them, and also if they are used in related ways. Using the terms in the defined way, the fact of the matter is that the principle does not speak of the situation, not yet nearly in sight, where there might be a choice between everybody's being equally well-off and everyone still better-off but unequally so. The spirit of the principle is very definitely for the second option. Nor does the principle have the consequence that we should drag down the well-off if that had no good effect, but rather made all of us equally badly-off. On the contrary, the principle prohibits this. The second policy requires that transfers from the well-off decrease the numbers of the badly-off.

The formulation we have of the Principle of Humanity is not the only one, and not identical with a formulation that has seen the light of day in the past. We need not suppose we have its eternal and canonical form -- or a form as agreeable to all other supporters of it as it is to those of philosophical habits. Enlightened economists, no doubt, would couch it differently, and political theorists differently again.18 If the subject of the inquiry we are now ending were the left rather than the Right, the principle would get a lot more attention.19 We would look into various questions raised by it and various recommendations of it, and relate it to the various generalities about equality looked at earlier. We would also consider its great capability of withstanding objections -- such as the objection about liberty -- which are also withstood by the principle of equality of results.

Given that our concern is what it is, there are only two essential propositions to be noted. They will bring us to our conclusion about conservatism.

The first, assumed already, is that the Principle of Humanity is an adequate summation of what we have been calling the politics of the left. Conceivably it is among the best of such summations. It, unlike the principle of equality of results, can properly be spoken of as giving the rationale of the left. There can surely be no doubt about that conclusion of importance. Whether or not some egalitarians have been inclined to describe themselves in the way of Tawney, in terms of the principle of equal results, it is nonsense to suppose that the actual political traditions in question have pursued mere relativities. It is nonsense, for various reasons, to suppose that they have pursued any sort of equality over any sort of inequality.

They have not, in connection with education, had a goal that might in conceivable circumstances have been achieved by destroying all possibilities of education, say by burning down all the schools, thereby producing an equality. They have not had a goal that in conceivable circumstances might have been achieved by reducing all education to some rudimentary level of instruction, thereby again producing an equality. Consider something yet more fundamental. In Britain, as you know, the life-expectancy of the fifth social class has been strikingly smaller than that of the first social class. The left has not had a goal that might have been exactly as well achieved by shortening the lives of the first social class as by lengthening the lives of the fifth, or of course by reducing both still further to any situation whatever of equal lifetimes.

It needs to be seen clearly that exactly such a benightedness or awfulness, one that has these possibilities within it, is exactly what is assigned to the left by those who identify it with the principle of equality of results, or that principle as it can be understood. The traditions of the left have not conceivably had a goal that in conceivable circumstances might have been perfectly achieved by producing equal ignorance, equally short lives, or an equal poverty, or an equal captivity and powerlessness, or a terrible equality of frustration with respect to our other fundamental desires. It cannot conceivably be that the concern or commitment of these traditions has been a relationship, a mere relativity. Anyone tempted to the silliness of saying otherwise can be cured by considering those societies that have actually made some progress towards the given ideal, and comparing them to what they were before.


1. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 160.

2. Alan Ryan, Property and Political Theory, p. 33; Lawrence Becker, Property Rights: Philosophic Foundations.

3. Quoted by Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America, p. 121.

4. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p. 138.

5. Ibid, p. 196.

6. This line is quoted from one of Mrs Gaskell's novels by Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption in Equality, p. 93. It expresses, we are told, the conventional wisdom of the 19th Century, but is put aside as untrue and repellent by our authors.

7. Quoted by Robert Eccleshall, Political Ideologies, p. 91.

8. Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, p. 90.

9. Anthony Flew, The Politics of Procrustes, p. 81.

10. John Lucas, On Justice, pp. 197, 200.

11. George Sher, Desert (Princeton University Press, 1987).

12. Joseph and Sumption, op. cit., p. 73.

13. My own view of them is given in Punishment: The Supposed Justifications, (Polity, 1989 and other editions), forthcoming in a further edition from Pluto Press.

14. George Sher, op. cit.

15. See my A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes (Oxford University Press, 1988), the summary of it How Free Are You? (Oxford University Press, revised edition 2003), and On Determinism and Freedom (Edinburgh University  Press, 2004). .

16. I wish these were the conclusions drawn from some quite mistaken thinking on the subject by me at the end of A Theory of Determinism. See p. 612 for the worst conclusion. It also occurs in 'Determinism and Politics', in Midwest Studies in Philosophy VII: Social and Political Philosophy..

17. Roy Hattcrsley in his Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism (Penguin, 1987) has the distinction among politicians of making the point clearly. See pp. xvii, 21- 2.

18. Roy Hattersley offers a version of the principle most succinctly when he writes: 'Liberty is our aim. Equality is the way in which it can truly be achieved' (Choose Freedom, p. 23). His colleague, Bryan Gould, wrote similarly: '...the diffusion and equalization of power -- the true basis of socialism -- is...the only way to achieve a truly free society in which each individual enjoys the maximum degree of freedom commensurate with a similar degree of freedom for all others.' Socialism and Freedom (Macmillan, 1985), p. 106.


The Principle of Equality was first stated in 'The Problem of Well-Being and the Principle of Equality', Mind, 1981, subsequently revised into Ch. 2 of my Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Pluto, 2003) and Ch. 5 of the collection of papers On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003). It is also discussed in After the Terror, mainly Ch. 2. David Cooper is firm that it is an illusion that the Principle of Humanity has anything much to do with egalitarianism, since the latter is necessarily just a matter of mere relativities. See his Illusions of Equality (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 4-5. Anthony Flew discusses shortcomings of the principle, as well as some of my own, in the final pages of his Equality in Liberty and Justice.


HOME to T.H. Website front page

HOME to Det & Free Website front page