What’s Wrong with ‘Equality’?

Imagine you are assisting at a children’s party in a neighbor’s house, and the hosts put you in charge of dishing out the Jell-O. You’ve got a large bowl of green and a large bowl of red.  You look at the eager kids lining up and hope there will be enough to go around.  One scoop of either color for each child should do it. Things get complicated when a child asks for a scoop of each color, but what really puts a spanner in the works is when a pushy five-year-old demands a double scoop of each. You don’t want to risk an argument with a five-year-old, so you accede, hoping the others haven’t noticed.  Her brother’s next, and he has noticed, and asks for an even bigger portion on the grounds he’s two years older and hungrier.  Then your gaze alights on the next kid in line who is already eyeing up the large bowl containing the red  Jell-O, with both hands outstretched as if he’ll just grab the lot and walk off with it. Things are looking desperate so far as equal portions go, or even eking out the supply of  Jell-O so that each child can have some. You’re saved by another parent who gently pushes you aside and announces with an air of authority: ‘You’ll get what you’re given and no talking back!’  The line of kids visibly relaxes and the kid with both hands out happily accepts his allotted portion.

That about sums up the results of all attempts in the Western world to introduce the concept of ‘equality’ into social policy as a beneficial idea conducive to social harmony and justice.  Someone has to take charge and tell the recipients exactly what kind of equality they’re going to get and prevent anyone taking advantage of the system.  Weak leadership results in an orchestration of competitive special pleading, and/or the tragedy of the commons -- the taking of too much by those who can get away with it, to the detriment of others who might need it more. 

When governments get involved in any issue involving the notion of ‘equality’ the outcome is a massive bureaucracy designed to give at least the appearance of equality, even if the complex rules and form-filling mean that some people will lose out due to inability to work the system to their advantage.  Which means lots of work for non-profits designed to help the losers, and of course for lawyers.  And seemingly inevitable -- and endless -- challenges to the legitimacy of the rules and regulations, with judicial rulings to clarify the original aims of the policy in question and the legal principles involved.  And the more ‘equality’ some people get, the more is demanded by others, as if it’s a competition.

There is no easy way of defining what ‘equality’ should mean that makes it obvious what one can expect when the concept of ‘equality’ is invoked.  

The authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that the concept of ‘equality’ is ‘contested’.  Things go downhill from there.  One can have descriptive equality (e.g., size, shape) or prescriptive equality (equality as specified under norms, rules, laws).  But we’re still left with the question of what kind of ‘equality’ should be offered to whom, and how, and when, and -- if relevant or even possible -- how to measure it. 

One conclusion that might be drawn from all this is that ‘equality’ has ‘no unified meaning -- or even is devoid of meaning.’  And that’s the philosophers telling us this!  When seeking to make sense of the concept of ‘equality’ as applied to the issue of ‘social justice’ Stanford advises thinking in terms not of a single principle, but a ‘complex group of principles’ involving no single clear conception of ‘equality’.  What unites our concerns about ‘equality’ is a ‘common humanity’. 

Essentially what this does is kick the can down the road to be picked up by those arguing for greater ‘equality’ in specific contexts, without actually doing much to clarify what it is that is so important about achieving ‘equality.’  In almost any discussion of ‘equality’ issues you will be enticed down a rabbit-hole and belabored in the dark with various abstruse formulations of theory and principle until you emerge into the light feeling no wiser, but knowing that something is not quite right.

In theory, as citizens we all have equal status in law, and equal civil and political liberties and rights, our agreements made under contract law are protected, and we all have equal economic rights, including the right to own property and be protected in law from encroachments on our possession and enjoyment of that property.  And all people -- whether citizens or not -- have equal human rights, which means, in practice, that the public purse often finances the cost of both sides in any legal contest as to whether a human right has been breached.

Whether any right to ‘equality’ is enforceable depends on the political and judicial will to defend such rights and protections by amending and developing the relevant processes so that the rights and protections are adequate to changing circumstances.  As usual, the law -- being a cumbersome beast to enact and deliver -- lags behind what is happening to the ordinary person.

For example, some corporate employees are now being required to undergo ‘diversity training’ under the implicit threat that their jobs might be at risk if they don’t attend and perform to the required standard.  It is arguable that the civil rights of those people who might object to such training (whatever the color of their skin) have been infringed.  As yet there is no specific remedy available in law.  The cancel-culture -- whereby employees can lose their careers if they are merely accused of racism -- provides another scenario in which the idea of ‘equality’ can seem so malleable as to be almost worthless in practice.

If, however, one understands ‘equality’ to be a sortal concept, whereby things that are alike in one or more respects are grouped together, using a Venn diagram to represent any overlapping of groups that share a proportion of common members, then a new way of framing ‘equality’ is revealed.

For example, if one puts this into a political context, the logic of being ‘more equal than others’ suddenly becomes clear.  This is the logic of intersectional identity politics, whereby a hierarchy of ‘victimhood’ is established, ranked according to how many grievances the members of a group can claim against their ‘oppressor(s)’.  The more ‘victim’ groups a person can belong to, the higher the status in the ‘victim’ hierarchy, and the greater authority the person can wield over those lower in the hierarchy -- because ‘victimhood’ somehow confers moral authority in the world of identity-politics.  Cry-bullying rights.

And this explains why some people today are much ‘more equal than others’ and enjoy many more enforceable rights and protections than those who are not able to find a place in the complex Venn diagram of intersectional identity politics.  

That’s partly why the rhetoric of ‘equality’ is so obscurantist and the rabbit-hole so dark and deep. 

Because this is not about uniting us in our common humanity, it’s about subverting what we have in common in favor of emphasizing the grievances felt by a noisy and disruptive minority who claim that their ‘victimhood’ means we should submit to them.

Whatever this is, it’s not equality.

Wen Wryte is the pseudonym of a retired teacher of philosophy who likes a quiet life.

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