Department of Political Science


Equality, Justice and Difference

Course Code


Course Tutor

Dr Helen Brown Coverdale (Department of Political Science)


One 3,000 word essay

Credit Value


About this course

How should we deal with diversity? Human beings differ in our religious convictions, our cultural identities, our race and ethnicity, our privilege, our gender, our sexual orientation, our ability levels, and more. This module examines one of the most pressing political problems facing contemporary pluralist societies: how can we ensure that all individuals are treated equally, while respecting the fact that each individual is different? The module approaches this question through a critical assessment of the philosophical literature on 'the politics of difference'.

In recent decades, radical criticisms have been launched against liberal political theory and practice. Traditional liberal policies (of toleration, pluralism, non-discrimination, and uniform legislation), and traditional liberal methods of justification (based on individualist, egalitarian, and contractarian assumptions), have both been subject to radical critique, charged with ignoring the structural and cultural disadvantages suffered by members of minority groups. In place of this traditional liberal politics, various forms of a ‘politics of difference’ have been proposed. 

The latter focus on various kinds of difference (such as those based on culture, religion, gender, class, and sexual-orientation); they identify various injustices (such as structural oppression and lack of recognition); and they propose various remedies (such as affirmative action, representative quotas, deliberative democracy, religious exemption, and minority rights). Do justice and equality require the recognition of difference? Or is such recognition merely a deviation from egalitarian justice? Can we find an inclusive and egalitarian conception of justice capable of accommodating citizens who have radically different needs, identities, and conceptions of the good life?

The module examines responses to the claims of 'difference' from a range of political ideologies: liberalism, feminism, multiculturalism, and critical theory. It critically examines the recent work of various political theorists, such as Brian Barry, Rajeev Bhargava, Chandran Kukathas, Will Kymlicka, Susan Moller Okin, Anne Phillips, John Rawls, Charles Taylor, and Iris Marion Young. And it considers a series of concrete case studies, including affirmative action policies in the U.S., the Hijab controversy in French state schools, and language policy in Quebec.