The Dimensions of Equality

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Two things are equal when one is neither more nor less than the other in an identified respect. When they are unequal, their inequality consists in one being more, the other less — one superior, the other inferior — in some respect.

This understanding of equality and inequality remains constant in all the dimensions in which things are related as equal or unequal. What differs as one distinguishes different dimensions is (1) the character of the subjects of which equality and inequality are predicated, (2) the mode of the predication, and (3) the qualifications attached to the predication. Let us consider each of these differences in turn.

1. Personal and Circumstantial Equality

The subjects being compared and regarded as equal or unequal fall into two main categories: human beings and everything else — all the external circumstances under which human beings live and act and whatever factors impinge upon their conduct and their welfare. I shall refer to the first category as human or personal equality and inequality, and to the second as circumstantial equality and inequality.

Human equality and inequality can be further subdivided into that which arises from the endowments that persons bring into this world at birth and that which derives from their attainments — the attributes or characteristics they acquire in the course of their lives, the degree to which they develop their innate endowments, and the work of their hands and minds.

Inequality in height exemplifies a human inequality that is genetically determined and so is an inequality between two persons that is a matter of native endowment. To whatever extent we are born with one or another degree of intelligence, human equality and inequality in this respect are also a matter of native endowment.

Two human beings who start out equal in their genetically determined degree of intelligence may develop that endowment to different degrees, either through what they themselves do with their minds or because of the circumstances under which they are reared, trained, and educated. In either case, they may end up unequal in their mental attainments. One may know more than the other or have more skill in the use of his mind.

Two persons born with the same capacity for engaging in a certain sport may, at a later stage in their lives, be unequal in the degree of their acquired skill in playing tennis or in swimming.

One individual may put his native endowments to work in the production of wealth or other goods, while another, with equal endowments, may squander his talents, producing nothing, or employ them less assiduously and efficiently, producing less. They must then be regarded as unequal in this respect.

The personal equality or inequality that stems from the degree to which individuals are natively

endowed in one way or another, let us call natural, as contrasted with the equality or inequality of human attainments, which can be referred to as acquired. All personal equalities and inequalities are either natural or acquired.

When we turn from human equality and inequality, natural or acquired, to circumstantial equality and inequality, we confront the difference between the type of circumstantial equality or inequality that has come to be called equality or inequality of condition, and the type that has come to be called equality or inequality of opportunity.

The difference between equality of condition and equality of opportunity can best be illustrated by a race in which individuals all start out with no one affected by circumstances more or less favorable to winning the race. Their equality of opportunity consists in an equality in the initial conditions under which they enter the race. When the race is run, these same individuals end up unequal. According to the speed with which they ran the race, one comes in first, another second, another third, and so on. If prizes are awarded, the gold, silver, and bronze medals represent an inequality of conditions, which is also sometimes called an inequality of results.

The example I have used is complicated by the fact that the runners who enjoy an equality of opportunity with regard to external circumstances may enter the race unequal in their native endowments as competitors. Even ff they are equal in their native endowments, they may enter the race unequal in the degree to which they, by exercise and training, have developed those endowments. Prior inequalities of endowment or attainment will, of course, affect the inequality of resulting conditions in spite of the equality of opportunity provided by the equal initial conditions under which they entered the race.

That is why it is often pointed out that if human beings are granted nothing more than equality of opportunity, inequality of conditions is likely to result. The individuals who are better endowed or better trained are most likely to end up ahead of those less well endowed or trained An equality of resulting conditions that is unaffected by equality of opportunity (enjoyed by individuals of unequal endowment and attainment) may be achievable only by strenuous efforts on the part of society to see that its individual members are somehow given or granted such equality. When, for example, all members of a society — or all with justifiable exceptions — are given the same political status, let us say that of citizenship with suffrage, an equality of political condition results.

Equality before the law is another example of an equality of condition that a society can establish. It does so when it accords equal treatment in the courts and in other aspects of the legal process to all individuals regardless of their inequalities of endowment or attainment, regardless whether they are rich or poor, regardless of the ethnic group to which they belong, and so on. Such equality of treatment does not discriminate in any way among persons who differ from one another in a wide variety of respects that are irrelevant to the treatment they should receive in the legal process.

Equality of condition may be either an equality in the status granted individuals, an equality in the treatment accorded them, or an equality with respect to their possession of one or another basic human good, such as political liberty, wealth, a healthful environment, or schooling. Their equal possession of such goods depends upon factors controlled by society, not entirely by themselves.

For our present purposes, it will suffice to subdivide equality or inequality of conditions into three main categories: political, economic, and social. Equality of opportunity (which is an equality of initial as opposed to resulting condition) can be similarly subdivided.

2. Equality That Does Exist and Equality That Ought to Exist

When we predicate equality or inequality of persons or conditions, the predication may be either declarative or prescriptive. To say that two individuals are or are not equal in a certain respect is declarative. To say that they should or ought to be equal or unequal in a certain respect is prescriptive.

In the sphere of human equality and inequality, prescriptive statements make no sense. We cannot say that human beings ought to be equal or unequal in any personal respect, neither with regard to their endowments nor with regard to their attainments. All that we can meaningfully say, as a matter of fact, is that they are personally equal in this respect and unequal in that respect.

It has been suggested that individuals, entering into association with one another to form a community, should do so on a supposition contrary to fact; namely, that they are all personally equal in every important respect. This contrafactual supposition is defended on the ground that organized society can come into existence on the basis of a social contract only if all who enter into that contract suppose themselves to be completely equal. If a veil of ignorance about the facts, which permits them to make this contrafactual supposition, were not operative, it is thought that they would not agree to become participants in the social contract.

The social contract is a myth that can be dismissed as unnecessary for the explanation of the origin of political communities. With it goes the veil of ignorance that is thought necessary for the formation of society by means of a social contract. There is no sense in saying that human beings ought to regard themselves as personally equal in all important respects when they know the facts to be quite the contrary. Human communities of all sorts, including states or civil societies, have come into existence and have been formed by individuals who enter into such associations in spite of their well-known and acknowledged personal inequalities in many important respects.

Turning from personal to circumstantial equality and inequality, we find that both declarative and prescriptive statements can be made with good sense. We can say that this group of individuals are or are not equal with respect to a given circumstance affecting their lives; or we can say that they ought or ought not to be equal in that respect.

For example, those who, living under a constitutional govemment, are accorded the status of citizenship have an equality of status. They are all equal in their possession of the political liberty attendant upon that status. However, some members of that society may not be accorded the status of citizenship with suffrage. Then, as a matter of fact, the enfranchised and the disfranchised members of the society will be politically unequal — unequal in political status and unequal with respect to political liberty.

When this is factually the case, conflicting prescriptive proposals may be advanced. Exponents of the democratic principle of universal suffrage may argue that all persons in a republic (or all with few justifiable exceptions) should be enfranchised. Opponents of universal suffrage, for one reason or another, may argue that the franchise should be restricted to persons having this or that special qualification, such as gender, skin color, or amount of property possessed.

Justice enters into the picture as regulative only in the sphere of circumstantial equality and inequality, because only there can we make prescriptive proposals.

Considerations of justice do not enter in the sphere of human equality and inequality where only declarative statements can be made and prescriptive proposals are impossible. Personal equality or inequality, natural or acquired, is neither just nor unjust. It is simply a matter of fact.

It is pointless to say that if nature were just, human beings would be born equal in all important respects. Nature is neither just nor unjust in the gifts it bestows. Only human beings can be just or unjust in the proposals they advance with regard to an equality of conditions or with regard to an inequality of results.

Where an inequality of conditions exists but ought not to prevail, justice may call for rectifying this by establishing an equality of conditions in its place. With regard to individuals who make unequal contributions by the work they do or the goods they produce, justice may call for an inequality of results in the rewards they receive.

3. Equality in Kind and Inequality in Degree

We come finally to the most difficult and at the same time the most important qualification or distinction to be considered in our statements about equality, whether declarative or prescriptive. It consists in the distinction between (a) an equality of conditions that exists or ought to exist without any attendant difference in degree and (b) an equality of conditions that exists or ought to exist but which is accompanied by differences in degree and so by inequalities among those who are equal in a given respect.

The following example may make this clear. All who have the status of citizenship with suffrage are equal in their political condition and with respect to their possession of political liberty. But when the members of a society are divided into the enfranchised and the disfranchised, an inequality of political conditions exists. If that is unjust, it can be rectified by establishing universal suffrage.

When, with universal suffrage, all enjoy an equality of political status, it may still remain the case that some citizens elected or appointed to public office exercise a greater degree of political power than citizens who are not public officials. They are able to participate in the affairs of government to a higher degree than ordinary citizens. Here, then, we have an equality of condition that is accompanied by differences in degree and so by inequality.

All who are citizens have some degree of political power, since all through suffrage can participate in the affairs of government. But some citizens, through exercising the power vested in certain public offices, have more political power than others.

Now let us consider a republic in which the suffrage is restricted rather than universal. There the population will, first of all, be divided into two politically unequal segments — (a) those who have the status of citizenship with suffrage and, consequently, political liberty and some degree of political power, and (b) those who do not have the status in question, and so have no political liberty and no degree of political power. There will be a second source of political inequality in the society we are considering. This time the political inequality will occur only among those who are politically equal. Equal because they all have suffrage, the enfranchised portion of the population will consist of persons who are unequal in the degree of political power they possess. As citizens with suffrage, all will have some degree of political power, but some who have it will have more of it, and some less.

The distinction that confronts us here can be summarized by saying that, in the sphere of circumstantial equality, equality prevails among those who have a certain condition, and inequality prevails between the group that has it and the group that does not have it. This is an equality among all the haves and an inequality between the haves and the have-nots. In addition, among the haves, there may be differences in the degree to which they possess and enjoy the condition in question, some having more of it, some less. Here we are looking at an attendant inequality among the haves, one that exists between the individual who has more and the individual who has less.

It is difficult to name the equality and inequality we have been considering. I propose to call the equality that prevails among haves an equality in kind, and the inequality between haves and have-nots an inequality in kind. In contradistinction, I propose to call the inequality among the haves, according as one has more and one has less, an inequality in degree.

If all persons are equal in their having the same specific human nature and, with that, the same species-specific properties, that is an equality in kind. But one person may be endowed with a specific property to a higher degree than another. The resultant personal inequality of human beings, all members of the same species but differing from one another as individuals, is an inequality in degree.

In the sphere of circumstantial equality, both types of equality may prevail in fact. All members of a society may be equal in kind as haves in a certain respect, but they may also be unequal in degree, one being a have-more, another a have-less. It is also possible, though very unlikely, that, as a matter of fact, all may be equal in kind as haves without any accompanying difference in degree.

Those who would rectify the injustice of existent inequalities of condition differ radically in the proposals they advance.

There are those who would defend the prescriptive judgment that, with respect to certain conditions, political, economic, or social, all should be equal in kind without any attendant inequality in degree. All ought to be haves with respect to this or that important human good, but among the haves, none should have more and none have less.

Opposed to them are those who would defend the prescriptive judgment that, with respect to the same conditions, all should be equal in kind, adding that such equality in kind should be attended by inequalities in degree. While all ought to be haves with respect to the human goods in question, some ought to have more, and some less.

Which of these two conflicting views is the correct view of what justice requires with respect to circumstantial equality — equality of status, treatment, possessions, and opportunity — is the question I shall attempt to answer in the following chapter. In closing this chapter, I cannot refrain from expressing my sympathy for readers who have struggled to read it carefully. I know they have found the treatment of equality difficult, more difficult than the treatment of liberty. I find it so myself. Though both are complex ideas, each embracing a diversity of modes, the dimensions of equality are a much more complex subject than are the kinds of liberty.

From Six Great Ideas, Chapter 21

To Part II: The Equalities to Which We Are Entitled

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]