If you want to explain the nature of equality the best thing to do is to distinguish between different types of equality. In fact, we’ll need a whole set of different distinctions, so that’s what I’ll try to do below. You can probably already guess the conclusion: equality is always and necessarily complex equality (in the words of Michael Walzer). I suppose that’s also why this post is so long. I apologize.
What equality isn’t
But before we distinguish types of equality, let’s clearly distinguish equality from some other concepts: equality ≠ identity (or sameness) ≠ uniformity ≠ similarity.
When people speak about “equality” in moral and political philosophy, they never mean “identity” (perhaps they do in mathematics, but we don’t care about that). Claims that people aren’t treated equally or suffer from some form of unjust inequality are not claims that people should always and in every respect be equal or treated equally. Complete or absolute equality would be the same as identity, but that’s not what is at stake in moral or political discourse. To my knowledge, people never claim that all people should always be treated identically in every respect. The claim is that people should be treated equally, or “the same”, in some very specific ways or some very specific fields of life: people should have the same access to education, for example. The anti-egalitarian claim that those of us who care about equality will push society to a dystopian future of uniformity is therefore misguided. Egalitarianism demands certain forms of equality, but beyond that it’s very happy to accept inequality.
The egalitarian goal isn’t even “approximate correspondence” or high levels of similarity between people. Very dissimilar people can have a justified claim to equal treatment in certain respects, and when they achieve this equal treatment they don’t become “similar” to each other in any ontological sense. They remain very different people, except that in some very specific sense and very specific part of their lives they are being treated the same. For example, a poor African American has the same right to a fair trial as a wealthy WASP, but that, together with all their other claims to equality, doesn’t make them similar people.
Equality needs at least one other word: equality is always equality of something very specific. Equality without any qualifier would indeed be very close to identity or uniformity. People should be equal in important and specific respects only. They shouldn’t in general be the same, nor should they even be treated in generally the same way. The goal is to realize certain specific types of equality among human beings, not to move steadily towards ever greater “correspondence”, similarity or even identity and uniformity. This very specific nature of equality is a natural limit on its scope, something which should appease critics of equality. People shouldn’t be treated equally or uniformly in all respects, only in those respects for which people have a justified claim to be treated equally or uniformly.
The question then is, of course, what are those justified claims and which claims are not justified? What are the specific cases in which people deserve to be treated equally? We are talking about equality of what exactly? Which are those “specific field of life” where equality is required? That’s an ongoing and probably never-ending public discussion. A typical strategy in dealing with such questions is to take a step back as it were. Make things a bit more abstract. As a result, the most common qualifier or “second word” is dignity or respect, which in turn is believed to justify other, more specific qualifiers. For example, the equal dignity of all human beings, if that’s a claim that can be justified, is supposed to invalidate gender discrimination.
Descriptive or prescriptive equality
Justifying equality is a prescriptive task. You want to come up with reasons why a certain form of equality is morally necessary. You’re not interested in descriptive equality, i.e. the measurement of levels of (in)equality, of their causes and effects, of the interaction between different types of (in)equality etc. You will be interested, but only after the prescriptive work is done and after you’ve decided which types of equality are morally important. Prescriptive equality is the claim that people ought to be equal in some respects. Because equality is necessarily a social concept – i.e. you need at least two people before you can speak about equality – the prescription here is comparative: people ought to be equal in some respects to other people, mostly to all other people, but not necessarily. Perhaps people should be treated in an equal way by other people in certain circumstances (e.g. the ballot); or perhaps their opportunities should be equal to those of other people; or perhaps their basic resources should be equal to those of other people etc. (More below).
So prescriptive equality has two different aspects: people should be equal
- in certain respects (equality of what: treatment, resources; opportunities etc.), and
- to certain other people (equality of whom: we’ll see below that in some cases all people should be equal but in other cases only some people or people belonging to a certain group).
Prescriptive equality will also answer the question: why should people be equal in certain respects and to certain/all other people? Why is this equality important and why is its absence a problem? The remainder of this post will focus on prescriptive equality.
Universal or specific equality
Prescriptive equality can be either universal or specific. Since equality is a moral concept, we see in most cases that the equality claimed by people is a universal one: people want to be equal in some respect to all other people. The claims by victims of racism, discrimination, oppression etc. fall under this heading. However, equality can also be more specific: people may want to be treated equally compared to certain other people, and therefore, logically, unequally compared to the rest of humanity. An example of that is Aristotle’s claim that we should treat “like cases as like”. Cases that are unlike each other should sometimes be treated unlike each other. The classic example is that of students: we usually sense that there is something wrong when a teacher systematically gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. Equal treatment in such cases should be limited to similar people, in this example people with similar merit.
Other examples of a non-universal notion of equality:
- A sick person has other needs than a healthy person. Treating them equally doesn’t sound right. However, giving help to one sick person and not to another also doesn’t sound right. Equality here means equal treatment of all sick persons.
- People who are themselves responsible for their unequal position because of their own free decisions – for example the so-called undeserving poor – will have more difficulties making the claim that society should restore their equal position – in this example, deliver some basic goods.
Instrumental and non-instrumental equality
The previous distinction leads to another one: suppose that you value equality not for its own sake but as a means for another goal, say solidarity. A more equal society is then supposed to be one in which people care more about each other, which in turn can be a means for yet a more profound goal, for example stability. In that case, it won’t make a lot of sense to adopt a universal type of equality (see above). You’ll focus instead on the equality between members of a specific community. If, on the other hand, you value equality for its own sake, then there’s no reason to limit the egalitarian concerns to a given community. However, an instrumental type of equality is not necessarily specific. It can be universal if the goal that is served by equality is a universal goal. An example of such a goal could be dignity.
Absolute or limited equality
If equality is a value in itself and not the means for achieving other values, and if it is, at the same time, a value that takes priority over all other values and that cannot be limited by other values, then we have a problem. Because in that case,
there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. … If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. (source)
And that’s highly counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that equality shouldn’t be a non-instrumental value; only that it shouldn’t be both a non-instrumental and an absolute value at the same time.
Formal or substantial equality
Equality can be either formal or substantial equality. An example of formal equality is legal equality: all people have the same legal rights – e.g. equal human rights – and all people are equal before the law. Marx has famously ridiculed this formal equality, saying that it has no meaning for the poor, and can even serve to oppress the poor (it’s therefore a negative instrumental equality). A rich and a poor person both have the same legal rights, but the rich person can use these rights more and better than the poor person, sometimes even against the interests of that poor person. Hence, formal equality leads to substantial inequality. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that formal equality isn’t as useless as that. It may be useful but it’s not sufficient, and more substantive notions of equality, such as equality of opportunity, of basic resources etc. are important as well. People shouldn’t only have an equal legal right to something, but also an equal right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right. Those means can be food, education, opportunities etc. Let’s have a closer look at some of those more substantial types of equality.
Political, legal, economic or social equality
So universal equality isn’t only legal equality but also political, economic or social equality. Political equality means that all the citizens of a country should have the same political power. That usually translates into equal voting rights in a democracy – which are legal rights – combined with some more substantial equality like equal education, education being a prerequisite for adequate political participation (so the equal right to education is a “right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of another right”, in this case political rights).
However, the universality of political equality is often somewhat limited, in a couple of ways:
- people living elsewhere obviously have no need for political power in our country
- it’s also limited to full citizens, controversially
- and it’s – even more controversially – limited to adult people who are not in prison.
Economic equality is usually understood as the equal distribution – or redistribution – of some basic goods such as food, shelter, health, education etc. (It’s rarely seen as absolute equality of all goods).
Social equality is often a mix of the three previous ones: racial discrimination for example is a violation of the demands of social equality (equality between different social groups), but it often manifests itself unequal voting rights, unequal legal rights (e.g. segregation or Jim Crow) or unequal prosperity between racial groups.
Equal opportunity or equal outcomes
Equal outcomes can be, for example, equal resources: people should have the same basic resources (e.g. a guaranteed basic income). Equal opportunity means that people have the same options in life and the same prospects for preference fulfillment as all other people. The actual outcomes, what ultimately happens to them – whether their lives are equal or not, whether they’re rich or poor – is less important because, given equal starting opportunities, those outcomes are their own responsibility. However, most people would agree that outright misery, even if it’s someone’s own fault and not the result of back luck, discrimination or unequal starting opportunities, should be a legitimate issue of egalitarian concern.
Equality of opportunity then may not be enough but it certainly is important. No one deserves the circumstances, family, class, country etc. into which she is born. She doesn’t even deserve her talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort. Bad luck in the natural lottery (talents) or the lottery of birth (circumstances and places of birth) can lead to vastly unequal opportunities. We can’t equalize talents or luck, but we can mitigate the inequalities they create. For example, we can offer some insurance against misfortune, or education as a means to develop abilities.
Quantitative or qualitative equality
And finally, equality can be viewed as a quantitative or qualitative notion. Two people can be equal when they have the same amount of something – e.g. income – or when they have the same characteristics or qualities – e.g. equal rights. Quantitative types of equality are economic equality, political equality in some sense and equality of certain opportunities. Qualitative equality is for example legal equality and social equality.