“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

14 August 2014

What's the Point of Equality?



Equality is one of the most problematic and even dangerous notions in politics, yet it retains a particular appeal and is well worth exploring.

Gottlob Frege, the founder of modern mathematical logic, asked a basic question at the beginning of his work Sense and Reference:

Equality gives rise to challenging questions which are not altogether easy to answer. Is it a relation? A relation between objects, or between names or signs of objects?

Frege favoured the latter; that equality is a relation between names or signs of objects rather than between things or beings as a whole. In this way, we can see equality occurring between aspects of things rather than the things themselves. After all, if an object or being (a human being for example) is absolutely equal with another, then it would be the same thing. It’s like Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus: "Roughly speaking: to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing."

You might think this brings into question the whole idea of political equality, though even to say there is a ‘whole idea’ of political equality is highly questionable: there’s more of a patchwork of versions bringing in many different types of political position, but nevertheless all with an idea of ‘equality’ at their heart.

Generally, these political positions use equality in terms of ‘there should be equality’ – for example of material wealth, income, group representation in politics and various professions etc. These are all highly problematical in practical political terms if taken as absolute, requiring significant interventions and curtailing of freedom to maintain the equal values demanded. It is not difficult to imagine human life almost grinding to a halt in these situations for fear of non-equal relations building up by people doing things that might create inequalities. Nevertheless the objection doesn’t necessarily seem to be a reason to ditch this version of equality; though only if, ironically, it is watered down and not taken as absolute. There seems to be some goodness and truth there.

But the idea that ‘there should be equality’ also leads inevitably into inflexibility and arbitrariness when it comes to categories. When addressing equal representation for example you can only practically use a few divisions before you get bogged down. Realistically you have to make choices favouring equal representation in some categories and not others. The rationale for choosing which ones qualify is far from clear, so relative group power (a form of inequality) is likely to prevail.

Favouring gender representation for example means downgrading racial, religious and other types of representation. Favouring racial representation brings up questions of how to do this: to throw all non-whites into the same category or divide them up into different groupings, for example according to some sort of aggregated measure of success in mainstream society, like income? Sticking to the former means those from successful groupings who are well-positioned generally end up representing those groups who are not as successful, thereby undermining the original rationale – unless that rationale sticks to a strict racial determinism (as practised in anti-colonialist theory). This objection recurs even if you divide up according to more detailed categories; those who are already advantaged are likely to end up representing those who are not. Going down that route also means creating incredibly convoluted systems which would in practice abolish democracy in politics, while preventing businesses and other institutions from making choices based on other criteria like merit.

But even just separating whites from non-whites creates a basic inequality of two separate classes whose members have no choice where they are placed, while ignoring inequalities within these created classes. Within the white-skinned class, there would be all sorts of different categorial divisions ignored, including more or less problematic notions of social class, nationality and ethnicity – where do English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Jewish, etc fit in just to start with? Are these skin-colour-based categories? And what place religion, which often brings together people from different racial groups?

All this is enough to give the administrator of equality a serious headache, and goes to show how deeply troublesome equality is in practice. A nice-sounding idea with which most of us would agree on a basic level ends up creating all sorts of complications, compulsions, and also inequalities, from which there seems to be no escape.

The idea still retains a basic appeal though.

In a lecture on equality given in 1956, Isaiah Berlin associated this attraction with the idea of fairness, which he called “a form of desire for equality for its own sake”. He also invoked rules as, by definition, entailing a measure in equality.

Berlin said: 

To enforce a rule is to promote equality of behaviour or treatment. This applies to whether rules take the form of moral principles and laws, or codes of positive law, or the rules of games or of conduct adopted by professional associations, religious organisations, political parties, wherever patterns of behaviour can be codified in a more or less systematic manner.”


This is a simple, attractive and consistent way of approaching equality which admits the need for other positive values to augment it and provide context – and for inequality to ensue as some do better than others in different contexts.

But as a result this version of equality contradicts itself, by creating the grounds for inequality in practice – just as enforcing particular versions of equality does. The concept doesn’t seem to work as a general principle.

So how can we retrieve equality, if indeed we can?

The starting point may be to examine the very basics of what equality means to us, as something almost visceral – not about sameness or identity between persons, but about equality of importance.  This cannot be universal, as we cannot possibly treat everyone as equally important in our own, personal, lives. It is rather about equality in political life, from the perspective of the whole, of society and government.

This is where the idea of democracy comes in as an institutionalisation of equality. Different democratic systems have their own problems, but they all work off the basis of equality between citizens, whatever their background, education, skin colour, religion, gender or sexuality. This is a powerful idea, yet it is less than a hundred years since women and poorer men were given the vote in Britain: a blink of the eye in historical terms. We are still infants when it comes to practising democratic equality, and many of our institutions are relics of an age preceding it.

Nevertheless the pressures to undermine and disrupt this fundamental political equality are all around us. Discriminatory measures designed to achieve one aim or another are often justified using the language of equality or progress, but in practice institutionalise elites whose power comes from the promotion and practice of separatism and inequality.

Equality in importance doesn’t mean having to be the same or even necessarily following the same rules. The existence of different classes in society allows for greater diversity in values and behaviour than would otherwise be the case; alternative ways to pursue high status, or not. As long as basic equality of importance and the institutions which support it are maintained, there is no reason why we shouldn’t institutionalise different classes in society in order to give people a voice rather than leaving them isolated with no one speaking for them.

The meaning of democratic equality is that basic idea of everyone counting for one and no more than one. It is a powerful idea that protects freedom and diversity – which other ideas of equality do not. But it also offers a range of possibilities which we have barely begun to explore.


For more on similar topics, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.

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