The idea of equality is perhaps the defining feature of modern political thought. Whereas classical and medieval thinkers took it for granted that hierarchy is natural or inevitable, modern ones have started out from the assumption that all human beings are, in some important sense, equal. Nevertheless, few political principles are as contentious as equality or polarize opinion so effectively. Many, for example, have seen the traditional left/right political spectrum as a reflection of differing attitudes towards equality. Yet so remorseless has been the advance of egalitarianism that few, if any, modern thinkers have not been prepared to subscribe to some form of it, be it in relation to legal rights, political participation, life chances or opportunities, or any other aspect of life. The modern battle about equality is therefore fought not between those who support the principle and those who reject it, but between those with different views about where, how and to what equality should be applied. The issue of equality has provoked particularly intense debate when it has been applied to the distribution of wealth or income in society, what is commonly referred to as social justice.
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