Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea. Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.
Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world. Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.
But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word. Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated? or the religious exhortation to “love one another”? These are principles which many of us support. But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity. It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period. But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still manage to have more money at the end of the week than others. So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.
Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents. We are all different. And we need to be different. We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves. We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter. We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex. Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much. Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians. Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities. Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others have acute sensory abilities. There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers. The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.
The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality. In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful. Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity. If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.
But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift. Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.” Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior. We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”
Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics. And yet there is a bottom line. There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are. And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.
I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers. I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name. But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.