Rationalism, Equality and Social Justice


Liberalism was developed during the Enlightenment – the European period of history during which people moved away from superstition, such as religion, and towards logical thinking. ‘Reason’ theorists began to believe that people were capable of working out, in a logical fashion, what was in their own best interests. This idea goes against paternalism (allowing a ‘fatherly’ figure of authority make decisions for you). Reason was closely associated with the continuous progress of humanity through logical thought. Liberals believe in education for this reason and dismiss tradition for tradition’s sake. Liberals believe in reason because they have faith in human nature to make the correct decisions, so their view of human nature is quite positive- much more positive than the conservative view. Liberals believe that through reasoned logical thought humans continually advance their amounts of knowledge from one generation to the next. A potential problem with allowing people to be guided by their own motivations and thoughts is that they may be selfish or make the ‘wrong’ decisions. Liberals promote discussion and debate, but this might lead individuals to conflict with each other. However, liberals believe it is better for self-development for people to make mistakes and learn from them. Also, the debate of issues through reason and logic will lead to peaceful solutions and a development of human knowledge. This process highlights the cost of ignoring reason, for instance, conflict and bloodshed. War, therefore, should only be used as a last resort, after a reasoned discussion has failed.

Rationalism, Equality and Social Justice, figure 1

Equality and social justice

Justice means that moral judgements are made about a person’s actions and those actions are either rewarded or punished accordingly. Social justice is about providing people with their fair share of the materials and resources that exist in society (for example wealth, housing and so on).Liberals hold justice fairness as important because they believe in different kinds of equality.

Liberals believe in foundational equality – the belief that all human beings, no matter who they are, are born equal. This means that they have the same human or ‘natural’ rights and have the same moral worth.

They also believe in formal equality, including equality before the law. This is the idea that no humans should be given any kind of social status above those of other people. They would reject class-based hierarchical systems or titles, or racism, sexism or cultural discrimination. The most important types of formal equality are legal and political equality, as this means that the state must treat everyone the same. This is supported by the idea that everyone should get one vote.

Liberals also believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, the idea that every person should have the same chance to achieve something, take part in something or become something they want to. This idea promotes meritocracy, the idea that people achieve things through their skills and hard work (merit). They would reject the socialist idea of equality of outcome (social equality) as this would not reflect the differing talents and work people contribute to society. Although early liberals did not extend these equalities to women, modern liberals fully support them as applied to all social groups.

There are differing views in liberalism as to how equality is best achieved. Classical liberals suggested that the state should leave people alone and let them achieve what they can from birth, regardless of the situation they were born into. Modern liberals argue that the state should try to raise the less privileged to give them an equal or more equal opportunity to achieve the same as others. This idea is expressed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1970), who said ‘economic inequality is only justifiable if it works to benefit the poorest in society’.