Reflections on the Idea of Equality

I. The Several Meanings of Equality

A first step towards restoring order to the social, economic, and political chaos which prevails in so much of the world would be the clarification of concepts. The distortion of key concepts has led to bad policies, unrealistic expectations, and spiritual poverty. One such concept is “egalitarianism” or equality. Equality and its opposite, “inequality”, tend to generate a great deal of negative emotion primarily because most people have not reflected on the several meanings of equality. Without clarity, people talk across purposes and pursue wrong-headed objectives. Let it be stated clearly: equality and egalitarianism are ambiguous terms. When different people advocate equality, they do not always mean the same thing. And even the same person may mean one thing as regards a particular matter and have in mind a different idea of equality on another subject.

Take as an example: “Equal rights for women.” It could either be interpreted as a demand that women and men should have exactly the same rights, or a demand for rights which are of the same worth but different in content to reflect the biological differences between women and men. Moreover, suppose we decide that by equality we intend that different people should be exactly equal. The issue would not be settled. Do we mean that everybody should be given equal opportunity to attain specific things? Or, do we mean that everybody should be given equal amounts of specific things? It makes a huge difference which of these two possibilities we have in mind.

Robin Barrow, in his 1982 book entitled Injustice, Inequality and Ethics, illustrates this ambiguity with reference to an ‘equal housing policy’. A demand for equal housing might mean (1) that everybody should be given equal opportunity to obtain accommodation of his/her choice; (2) that everybody should be provided similar housing at one point in time; or (3) there should be a perpetual watchdog policy to ensure that everybody occupies housing space that will always be the same. It should be noted that if everybody were to be provided similar housing, the housing units would quickly become dissimilar on account of the different actions of those occupying them. The interior decorations would differ, the surroundings would not be kept equally well, and the homeowners would not be equally conscientious in ensuring that needed repairs are promptly and properly done. Over time, the values of the housing units could differ considerably. Therefore, a government cannot ensure equal housing. To do so, it would have to make obnoxiously rigid and intrusive regulations to make sure that the units remain equal. In practice, such regulations would be strongly resented and would not be enforceable. However, a government may reasonably seek to ensure equal opportunity for everybody to secure a decent accommodation.

The point is that equality is not as simple a concept as many people imagine. To clarify the concept, let me comment briefly on three kinds of equality: Equality before the Law; Equal Liberty; and Equal Opportunity.

Equality before the Law

One fundamental meaning of equality is connected with man's relationship to the Laws of Creation and the Laws of Nature. Every human being is unchangeably and unequivocally equal before these Laws. For example, regardless of one's gender, race, religion, or socio-economic class, one reaps what one sows. No matter how different people may be, if they all sow tomato, they will all reap tomato. A person who sows wheat can expect to reap wheat, whether he is a king, a billionaire, or a homeless pauper. Everybody, regardless of class, color, or creed is compelled to obey the Law of Gravity in both its physical and spiritual senses. These and other Laws of Nature apply in exactly the same manner and to the same extent for presidents and ordinary citizens, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak.

Taking a cue from the effects of the Laws of Creation, societies should ensure that everybody is equal before the laws they make. It should be remarked that societies ought to make laws that are compatible with the Laws of Creation and of Nature, if they wish to have lasting peace, harmony, and continuous development. In any case, whatever laws they choose to make (whether good or bad) should apply equally to everybody. This concept of “equality before the law” is attainable and should be vigorously promoted in all societies. Nobody, president or prelate, prince or prisoner, the prosperous or the pauper, ought to be permitted to place himself or herself above the laws of society. And nobody should be excused for any reason from the full application of the laws. The rule of law must be entrenched and applied to everybody. Unfortunately, dictators assert that ‘nobody is above the law’ only when dealing with their opponents; they always place themselves above the laws that they themselves make!

In general, if those who make laws know that they would be affected in the same manner as any other member of the society, they would be much more concerned about making laws that are just and fair. In this connection, we all should know and should always remember that the Creator does not place Himself above the Laws of Creation. He and all His true Envoys and Messengers completely subject themselves to the Laws of Creation. The Creator’s Laws are perfect and there is simply no question of His doing anything that would not accord with them; God is never arbitrary. Only human beings with their many weaknesses, act arbitrarily and outside the Laws of Creation. And that is why there is so much chaos and confusion in the world.

Equal Liberty

Those who wrote the American Declaration of Independence popularized the idea of equal liberty. They emphasized the rights of individuals to shape their own lives, to pursue their individual objectives without arbitrary interference by other individuals or by the government. They considered all men equal in the sense that they were all equally entitled to the freedom to live their lives, and to seek happiness according to their abilities and their personal goals. The founding fathers of the United States of America certainly did not mean that government should try to make all men equally wealthy, give each person equal amount of land, etc. In short, their concept of equality was in relation to personal freedom; they would consider any law or regulation which would necessitate the curtailment of the natural rights of others necessarily wrong.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel 1aureate in economics, commented on this conception of equality in the book, Free to Choose, co-authored with his wife. They argued that the emphasis of the founding fathers of the United States was on liberty and not on literal equality: “every person was to be his own ruler provided that he did not interfere with the similar right of others. Government was established to protect that right —- from fellow citizens and from external threat —- not to give a majority unbridled rule.” This valid idea of equal liberty derives from the fact that the human spirit is endowed with Free Will, which it must exercise in order to develop into a true human being. Unfortunately, with some of those founding fathers, precept and practice were not always the same; thus, while preaching equal liberty, some of them owned slaves!

Equal Opportunity

Some people who advocate equality really only mean that everybody should be provided equal opportunities. Therefore, if they advocate equal education, they simply mean that everybody should have the same educational opportunity. But “equal opportunity” can be given different interpretations. By equal opportunity, some could mean that only such opportunities as everybody can take advantage of should be offered. A more common idea of equal opportunity is that no one should be prevented by arbitrary obstacles from using his abilities to pursue his/her own objectives. In other words, everybody should be equally free to take advantage of whatever opportunities are available in society. Or, to put the same concept differently, society should offer opportunities equally to everybody without discrimination. This idea of an equal offer is consistent with justice and personal freedom; it is attainable and should be pursued.

Although a society can offer equal opportunity to everybody, the outcome would not be equal. Some would make maximum use of the opportunities offered, while others may not do what is required of them, would not exert themselves as necessary, to benefit from the opportunities. Yet others would be simply unable to take advantage of the opportunities, perhaps because of physical, social or economic handicap. In effect, opportunities become unequal. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to prepare people to be able to take advantage of specific opportunities offered. In general, the ability to take advantage of a given opportunity may be influenced by environmental factors, such as one’s social and economic circumstance including family background. Therefore, such factors should be considered and taken into account to the extent reasonable in any genuine efforts to offer equal opportunity. But it should never be assumed that a given opportunity will benefit the intended group equally.

Equity and Equality

Keeping in mind the above meanings of equality, we may now mention a concept that is related to it. This is the term ‘equity’. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of using the two terms interchangeably. The ordinary dictionary meaning of equity includes fairness, impartiality, or evenhanded dealing. An action is equitable if it is fair and right. A person who plants one hectare of wheat does not reap the same amount of wheat as another who plants ten hectares of the same wheat variety under the same environmental conditions and with the same care. In other words, the principle of equity is implied in the working of the Laws of Creation. Equity demands that rewards be given according to effort and we have every right to demand our ‘equitable share’ but we would not always be justified to ask for an ‘equal share’.

In Conclusion

To conclude, let us understand that equality and inequality have several meanings. Of these, the fundamentally important ones are equality before the law and equal liberty for all. Moreover, societies, institutions, and individuals can and should endeavor to offer equal opportunities; but they cannot ensure that everybody will take equal advantage of the opportunities so offered. Finally, any reflection on equality must take into account the fact that the human spirit is endowed with Free Will. This means that each person is free to decide what to do, think, or say but is unconditionally subject to the consequences (good or bad) of such decisions, regardless of his/her place in life. The consequences may come quickly or be delayed, but they do not fail to come. As human beings exercise their Free Will in different ways, inequalities necessarily arise.

Stephen Lampe