European inventory of
societal values of culture


At least since the French Revolution in 1789, equality has been treated as one of the key values of modern, democratic societies. While until the eighteenth century, it was assumed that human beings were unequal by nature, 'under conditions of modern social citizenship, it is inequality, not equality, which requires moral justification" (Turner, 1986).

A distinction is usually made between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome is most often interpreted as a state in which all people have approximately the same life conditions measured by wealth and income. It presupposes some sort of state intervention, usually a transfer of income or wealth from those who are better off. Today, this appears to be generally rejected as both untenable and undesirable. It is frequently stated that equalizing outcomes denies the importance of individual responsibility and choice, frustrates ambition, and prevents achievement. Likewise, it is frequently stated that it is unclear what should be equalized: income, wealth, welfare, or happiness. Because of this, most egalitarians do not advocate equality of outcome but different kinds of equality of opportunity. They claim that it is not resources or well-being that should be equalized, but opportunities to gain the well-being or resources one aspires to.

According to Adam Swift (2001), conceptions of equality of opportunity can be divided into minimal, conventional, and radical. What they all have in common is that they state that equalizing circumstances beyond our control is needed, while inequalities resulting from the exercise of personal choice and our own efforts are legitimate. Advocates of minimal conceptions believe that it is enough to eliminate overt discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religiosity, or gender discrimination in education and employment. Accordingly, school enrolment and job hiring should be based on individual competencies, skills, and qualifications. Conventional conceptions, on the other hand, also deal with indirect discrimination. According to them, the competition will become fair only when everyone is given equal chances to acquire the relevant competencies, skills, and qualifications. Finally, in radical conceptions, represented for example by Rawls (1971) and Dworkin (1981a, 1981b), unequal innate gifts are also not seen as something that individuals deserve; they are held to be arbitrary from a moral point of view. According to the proponents of radical conceptions, a genuine conception of equality of opportunity should be 'ambition-sensitive' but 'endowment-insensitive'.

Liberal egalitarian conceptions of equality of opportunity, outlined above, are criticized for their individualism. Namely, according to Young (2001), individualism marginalizes the impact of social structures, ignores the significance of social groups, and fails to identify the causes of structural inequality. As stated by Anne Phillips (2004), ‘In a world where the three hundred wealthiest individuals control assets equivalent to those of the poorest three billion, the distribution of resources is clearly about something more than the distribution of tastes or talents or the propensity for hard work’. Moreover, according to Phillips, equality of outcome and equality of opportunity should not be presented as opposites. Instead, equality of outcome ‘across the broad spectrum of resources, occupations, and roles—has to be taken as a key measure of equality of opportunity’ (ibid.).


A key theme related to the relationship between culture and inequality in our time is reflected in the dominance of ‘identity politics’. In such egalitarian politics, cultural recognition took precedence over issues of redistribution, which had previously held the highest priority. According to Judith Squires (2006), ‘those who are considered to be “unequal” are increasingly seen to be ethnic minorities, disabled, the elderly, gays and lesbians, religious minorities, and so on, rather than the poor’. This shift in concern from economic to cultural inequalities is accompanied by a shift in emphasis from similarity to difference. It appears that equality now necessitates appreciation for differences rather than a search for similarities. In addition, it emphasizes equality between groups rather than individuals.

Two types of criticism are addressed to this ‘politics of recognition’. The first one states that the ‘retribalisation’ inherent in group-specific claims generates political fragmentation and erodes the foundation for social cohesion at the level of society. The second point is that the preoccupation with cultural recognition and political inclusion marginalizes economic distribution issues. Nonetheless, the criticism is not unanimous. On the one hand, Piketty (2020) critiques ‘the drift toward the dead-end politics of identity’, and Lilla (2017) ridicules the sectarianism of identity politics. On the other hand, Savage (2021) asserts that there is ‘a close association between escalating economic inequalities and what has been conventionally referred to as “identity politics”’ and Fraser (1995) develops a theoretical framework that addresses both the political economy and culture and considers redistribution and recognition to be appropriate responses to inequality.

In relation to the narrow definition of culture, equality in culture includes making cultural experiences, venues, and resources accessible to all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status, physical abilities, or geographic location; ensuring that diverse cultural voices and perspectives are represented and included in cultural production; and providing opportunities for individuals from marginalized communities to actively participate in and shape culture. Cultural policies advocating the democratisation of culture, cultural democracy, and decentralisation of culture, represent significant attempts to implement these values. (PC)


See also:  Social Inequality and Cultural Policy; Democratisation of culture; Cultural democracy; Equal pay; Gender balance and culture; Creative industries; Creative class; Digital inequality, digital divide