Equality is not an end in itself | Jess Gill
From childhood, we are taught that equality is an ideal.
It is often the case in political discourse that equality is brought up and usually deemed as a desirable thing from both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, the idea that someone would challenge the notion that equality is good may sound bigoted to many people. “Do you not care about poor people?” “Do you not think black people and white people should be treated the same?” “Do you not think women should have equal opportunity to men?” The answer to these questions is obviously yes. However, in truth, we don’t do so on the basis of equality.
The use of the term “equality” is only suitable when it’s descriptive of how something is implemented. For example, take the famous Thomas Jefferson quote of “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their creator with certain alienable rights; that among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”. The value being pursued is not equality; but rather it’s the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The focus is on the rights, the mention of equality is only to describe how the rights should be distributed.
Equality is not in itself a goal to be achieved. A mother distributing food to her children isn’t doing so to be equal, she’s doing it on the basis that they won’t be hungry. If one child needs more food than the others, it would be logical to provide them with more food. Equality is not what is inherently valued but rather it is stopping hunger. Equality is just a means to that end. We are taught to treat everyone equally as a child. However, looking deeper into what this means, this is not true. It is wise for a child to discriminate against treating an adult stranger in the park the same as their schoolmate. We teach children to treat everyone equally with respect. Like Jefferson valuing liberty and the mother valuing feeding her children, the child is valuing respect, not equality.
When debating the topic of racism or sexism, equality is often at the centre of the conversation. Women should have equal pay as men for the same job. Black people should be treated equally as white people. Both of these statements are true. However, not for the sake of equality but for the reason that treating these people differently on the basis of race or gender makes no sense and is undesirable. For example, if a black person is racially attacked, it is not because a white person hasn’t been attacked that makes it wrong. It is wrong, not for equality, but because it is wrong to unjustly hurt another human being. No man and woman are the same and no person of any race are the same, but the reason for them not being the same is not based on their race or gender. In fact where there are differences, such as women having maternity leave, men and women are not treated equally because biological factors are at play.
Equality is not the way we progress society. We may think that equality of opportunity should be ideal. The notion that everyone should have access to the same opportunity sounds preferable. However, in practice it rarely produces the best result.
Take a classroom full of students of different abilities for example. They have the opportunity of the teacher’s attention. However, if we go based on equality either A) everyone will get a certain amount of time with the teacher or B) everyone has the equal opportunity to raise their hand to ask a question and the teachers attention is split randomly. On the basis of equality of opportunity, everyone has equal opportunity to succeed.
However, does this really seem like the most practical way of helping students? We have class sets for a reason. In both scenarios, the students who need more help won’t get enough time and the teachers attention isn’t maximised. Even if we just prioritise the students who are falling behind the class, is this really fair considering there are other students with better abilities whose education isn’t being progressed? After all, the time being spent helping the student who is falling behind could be spent teaching the next Einstein more advanced topics. Not everyone needs to be good at a subject to succeed in life and help society. What we should do instead is attempt to maximise everyone’s abilities, regardless of whether that involves equality of any kind. To repeat, equality is means not an end.
Equality of opportunity is an attempt to try to create a level playing field. However, creating a level playing field could include adding barriers to the advantaged in order to give them the same opportunities as the disadvantaged since this would create equality of opportunity. Instead of providing access to clean water for everyone, we could just remove clean water all together and there would be equality of opportunity. When people think of equality of opportunity, it is about removing barriers for the disadvantaged. But again, the priority is to remove barriers, not to ensure equality.
If there is only enough resources to remove barriers for some people, let’s say providing water pumps for developing countries, would it be moral to deny them the resources for the sake of equality of opportunity? After all, this would create a big inequality between those who do and those who do not have access to water. Therefore, the priority would not be to ensure actual equality, but to ensure as many people have access to the resources.
When people talk about “equality” they don’t tend to mean actual equality. For example, the feminist argument for women to have maternity leave was often argued on the basis “gender equality”. However, this cannot really be equality since men are not given the same treatment as women when it comes to maternity/paternity leave. This, of course, makes sense since biological men cannot get pregnant and therefore do not need as long off when it comes to children. Oftentimes, the use of the term “equality” is not used to actually create “equality” but instead used to push progressive movements. When you ask how “gender equality” can be achieved, the answer is seldom actual equal treatment. This isn’t to say that these movements are wrong, just that they shouldn’t have been argued on the basis of equality.
Many people seem to believe equality is a virtue without questioning the truth of that belief. It is one of the most common presumptions made in major political conversations and a major driver behind how we think about policies and movements. As shown, equality is often not the best way of achieving the best possible outcomes. In addition, when we think of good movements which we relate to equality, it is always other principles that make these movements virtuous successful, not equality. However we still talk about politics and social movements as though equality is a good end to achieve and policies are implemented in accordance with that. But in reality there is no basis for that belief. Next time the argument is made that “we should do X for the sake of equality”, it is crucial we think about the deeper meaning behind it and whether it is indeed for the sake of equality that we are doing X.