Equality has long been among the most potent of human ideals and it continues to play a prominent role in political argument. Views about equality inform much of the debate about wide-ranging issues such as racism, sexism, obligations to the poor or handicapped, relations between developed and developing countries, and the justification of competing political, economic, and ideological systems. Temkin begins his illuminating examination with a simple question: when is one situation worse than another regarding inequality? In exploring this question, a new approach to understanding inequality emerges. Temkin goes against the common view that inequality is simple and holistic and argues instead that it is complex, individualistic, and essentially comparative. He presents a new way of thinking about equality and inequality that challenges the assumptions of philosophers, welfare economists, and others, and has significant and far-reaching implications on a practical as well as a theoretical level.


In 1977 two chance conversations changed the direction of my philosophical life. First, a fellow graduate student at Princeton, Milton Wachsberg, convinced me to attend a course taught by someone I had never heard of. The course, given by Derek Parfit, covered much of the seminal work later developed in Reasons and Persons, and I found it fascinating. Later, Eileen O'Neill and I were discussing our readiness for the next year's job market. Eileen wasn't worried; she was going to France for the year to study at the Sorbonne. What a brilliant idea! Perhaps I could take a year off and study at Oxford with Parfit.

Three days later I ran into Parfit at the copy machine in 1879 Hall. I asked if he was going to be at Oxford the following year. "Why?" he answered. "Were you thinking of coming to study with me?" I indicated that I was, without, of course, elaborating on my idea's recent origin. Though he hardly knew me, Parfit immediately and warmly replied, "I think that would be a marvelous idea." I arrived in Oxford the following summer.

Having gained an extra year for research, I decided to treat myself to some philosophical fun. Before turning to my dissertation, I would write up some criticisms of Parfit's work regarding future generations. I ended up writing a fifty-page paper that included a twenty-five page "aside" entitled "Reflections on Equality." Parfit's response was strong and wholly unexpected: to forget about my previous plans and write a thesis on inequality. I followed his advice, never imagining that I would still be working on the topic 13 years later. Nor could I have known, though I sometimes let myself dream, that I might one day publish a book on inequality with Oxford University Press, whose flag I used to gaze at from my Little Clarendon Street flat as I wrote out my initial thoughts on inequality.

Much has happened in the intervening years, and there are many who have aided in this book's production. But first let me record my debt to my philosophical teachers. At the University of Wisconsin, I had many dedicated teachers who first sparked, and then fanned, my interest in philosophy: Robert Hambourger, Zane Parks, Marcus Singer, Fred Dretske, and, especially, Dennis Stampe. In graduate school I learned from many, including Michael Frede, Gilbert Harman, David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, Tim Scanlon, and Margaret Wilson. At Oxford I profited from a seminar given jointly by John Mackie and John McDowell, and another given by Ronald Dworkin, Parfit, and Amartya Sen. In addition, I was stimulated by the Oxford Moral Philosophy Discussion Group, whose members included . . .

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