With the commencement of our second year of publishing Religion & Liberty, we are adding a regular feature by the Reverend Dr. John K. Williams. Dr. Williams is a graduate of Melbourne and Oxford Universities. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree, he taught philosophy at Melbourne for three years before studying for the ministry. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and served as chaplain and senior teacher at St. Leonard’s College, East Brighton, Australia, for eleven years. Dr. Williams currently works as a lecturer and writer, and spent several weeks at the Acton Institute as mentor for our “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society” conference, and adjunct scholar. This column will offer our readers an opportunity to evaluate current wisdoms in the light of a traditional philosophical approach.
Professor A. T. Atkinson, an English scholar of some renown, has devoted the bulk of his academic life to penning works lamenting the inequalities, real and imagined, cursing his nation. These inequalities, he holds, result from the workings of the market economy that, in spite of extensive fettering by government, still holds sway in the United Kingdom.
By and large, defenders of a market economy have responded to Atkinson’s writings by arguing that the inequalities characterizing contemporary Britain are “not as bad” as the professor claims. Few critics, however, have asked the obvious question, “What is so desirable about equality and so evil about inequality?”
Interestingly, an exhaustive (and exhausting) study of the professor’s writings results in one’s finding little material addressing this question. In one of his better known works, Unequal Shares: Wealth in Britain, less than one page is devoted to explaining why equality is desirable. The explanation is less than compelling. It consists of a quotation from another writer to the effect that “[equality] has a particularly powerful aesthetic appeal.” Oddly, the same “aesthetic” argument for equality was appealed to by Henry C. Simons who, in a justly famous volume demolishing pseudo-economic arguments for progressive taxation, nonetheless concluded that such a system of taxation is desirable because “inequality” is ugly!
It would seem that Professor Atkinson holds that an “argument” demonstrating that inequality is evil and thus to be deplored is unnecessary. The proposition that he and not a few like-minded men and women hold is self-evident. Yet, is it?
Before exploring this question, a prior question must be addressed. What is meant by the noun “equality,” the adjective “equal,” and other cognates?
The first point to notice is that “equality” signifies a relation between two or more entities. Were a person to hold up a ball bearing and triumphantly announce, “This is equal!” a listener would be puzzled. “Equal to what?” such a listener would ask. The assertion that an object, in and of itself, is green makes sense; that it is, in and of itself, “equal” makes no sense.
Suppose, in answer to the question, “Equal to what?” our hypothetical speaker pointed to a block of wood and retorted, “Equal to that block of wood.” Again, the response would leave listeners bewildered. “In what respect are the ball bearing and the block of wood equal?” they well might ask. “In respect of their weight!” comes the reply. At long last the speaker’s intended meaning is clear. For all the manifest differences between the ball bearing and the block of wood, the weight of each is identical. In respect of their weight, the two objects are interchangeable. If, for some reason, a person wishes to weigh a quantity of sugar equal in weight to the block of wood, it would not matter whether the sugar is weighed against that block of wood or against the ball bearing.
Simply, the word “equality” and its cognates indicate a relationship between some quality or feature, two or more entities, or states of affairs. In respect of this quality or feature, the realities being compared are identical. Two pieces of wood might be equal in length. Three samples of cloth might be equal in color. Four ball bearings might be equal in mass, diameter, and material composition. In terms of whatever quality, property, or characteristic is specified, equal objects are identical and thus interchangeable.
Suppose someone were to assert that “All human beings are equal.” Such a person is claiming that in terms of some quality or property or characteristic, all people are identical and thus interchangeable. But what quality, what property, what characteristic?
I submit that it is impossible to specify any single physical, intellectual, or emotional characteristic that all human beings possess to the same degree. What strikes one about human beings is, surely, the uniqueness of each, not the sameness of all. A fascinating volume entitled Free and Unequal penned several decades ago by a biochemist named Roger J. Williams underscores the startling nature of this uniqueness.
It does not help matters if, instead of claiming that all human beings are equal, one insists instead that all human beings ought to be treated equally. Let us not waste time pointing out that, taken literally, this prescription is absurd: The mother or father who provides her or his three-month-old baby and strapping seventeen year-old adolescent son with the same quantities and types of food is hardly to be praised! Liberals advocating equality of treatment are not advocating such lunacy, and nothing is gained by fighting “straw men.”
The fact is that people are being treated equally if they are treated equally badly. The Mafia hit-man who disposes of his victims with equal efficiency is treating them equally, so is the sadist who tortures any and every person who comes his way with equal cruelty. It seems odd to say that such people are morally inferior to a hit-man who occasionally relents or to a sadist who now and then displays compassion and thereby treats his or her fellow human beings “unequally.”
Treating people “equally” has, in and of itself, no moral merit. Which is better: to treat all people kindly or to treat all people with equal kindness? Surely the former. The latter is satisfied if all people are treated with equally little kindness. The point is simple. The “quantity,” so to speak, of treatment meted out to people says nothing whatsoever about the “quality” of such treatment.
Actually, devotees of “equality” can never be satisfied. People are objectively speaking “unequal”: There is no quality, property, or characteristic–physical, intellectual, or emotional–that all human beings possess to the same degree. Treat unequals equally, and diverse–that is, unequal–outcomes result. Yet, the only way to guarantee equal outcomes for unequal people is to treat them unequally! Either way, raises a complaint. Given equal treatment, “unequal outcomes” are castigated as “unfair.” Given equal outcomes, “unequal treatment” is condemned.
Yet, let us backtrack. Maybe – beyond the physical, intellectual, or emotional – there is some quality, property or characteristic all human beings equally share. Indeed, maybe the expression, “all human beings,” itself enshrines that elusive “something.” I suggest the following. Simply by virtue of their shared humanity, all human beings are actually or potentially capable of formulating their own vision of the “good life” and are striving to make that vision a reality. All, actually or potentially, can initiate self-directed, purposive behavior, the object of which is the creation of a “good life.” All, that is to say, bear the imago Dei. That phrase–image of God–appears in the context of a Creation story and hence signifies, at least in part, the capacity of human beings to emulate the Divine creativity.
Hence, all enjoy equal human rights. The God-like capacity of an individual to be, albeit within limits, self-directing and self-determining cannot morally be trespassed upon by any other human being, however wise or however powerful. “Human” or “natural” rights function as “No Trespassing” signs, defining and protecting the moral space each individual needs to retain that sovereignty over his or her life vital for the pursuit of moral excellence. No one can morally initiate violence, theft, or fraud against any other human being peacefully seeking to make a reality his or her vision of the good life.
More. If all enjoy equal rights, all must be equal before the law. Special laws for special classes or castes are anathema. The individual who appears before a court stands before a blindfolded figure. Justice neither “peeks” to see who is in the dock nor does she state, “Tell me who you are and I will tell you your rights,” for the rights of all are the same. The categories of male and female, wise and simple, black and white, rich and poor, are supremely irrelevant.
For millennia, such was not the case. Men and women took for granted a social order of caste and of class and of legally entrenched privilege. What was legally permitted to some was forbidden to others. Yet, voices of protest were raised. A cry was heard, asserting that all human beings are equal in rights and thus equal before the law. No person is by nature the subject or inferior of another. All in this sense are, and must be treated as, “equal.”
This is the “equality” that matters, because this vision of human equality mirrors the equality that we human beings enjoy in the sight of God. He does not perceive us as identical clones. He knows each of us in his or her uniqueness. He calls “His sheep,” as Scripture has it, “by name.” Yet, in Paul’s words, “[He] has no favorites.” He sends His rain upon the just and the unjust alike. All are “equal.”