Understanding the meaning of equality

In recent years much has been spoken and written about the meaning of the word equality—mostly in context with society, regarding the relationships among humans. Some Americans seem obsessed with the concept and use it to demand certain kinds of social recognition or rights: women’s rights, gay rights, even animal rights campaigns carry this to absurdity. These people want to equalize social status apparently feeling that they are unequal parties within normal society.

Dictionary definitions of equal as an adjective include: “Having the same quantity, measure, or value as another; Having the same privileges, status, or rights; Impartial; just.” As a noun the word is defined: “One that is equal to another.” Other words add to the confusion of the “state or quality of being equal.” Equate: “To make equal or equivalent.” Equitable: “Marked by or having equity; just and impartial.” And equity: “The state, quality, or ideal of being just, impartial, and fair.”

In this plethora of words, fair, impartial, and just recur. Impartial and fair are synonymous, as in unbiased or not prejudicial. Fair is also a synonym for just. We could continue to chase a linguistic tail around all this, but let’s consider the relevance of the word just in discussing equality. Its meanings lead me to think that it best represents what most of us want: fairness, the quality of being just; morally right; honorable; righteous; “Properly due or merited.” Deserving might be another appropriate word. Most of us believe that individuals deserve what they accomplish or earn honestly on merit; not because of personal (often unreasonable) expectations or state-sponsored favoritism.

Another reason I believe that the word  just better suits this issue resides in law. Just means valid within the law; lawful. It follows that injustice exists outside our system of laws. Further, just means based on “fact or sound reason; well-founded.” lf law doesn’t make sense, or is abused it is not reasonable and, thus, questionable.

Some of us believe we have too many laws that now criminalize or in some way interfere with nearly every aspect of our lives. Justice is the quality of being fair; conformity to “moral rightness in action or attitude”—based on principles of honor, standards, truth, facts and sound reasoning.

These things define justice; the principle of moral rightness separate and above the concept of equality. They are, however, mostly subjective and therefore prone to distortions by people who don’t reason well; refuse to accept proven, workable experience; or expect the state to “mitigate and make more just the undeserved misfortunes” (or poor choices) of some people. Radicals make ridiculous threats to have demands met: “No Justice, No Peace.”

Dr. Thomas Sowell in his book “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” observes that we all seem to agree that justice is needed. But because of so many opinions about the meaning of the word by “Whatever moral principle each of us believes in,” we talk in circles, passionately, about “social justice,” but with no definition. Not surprising, conflicts that use this term usually involve income and wealth disparities. Philosophers and economists have thought and written about this for centuries.

The late, famed economist Friedrich A. Hayek noted that without personal intentions there are no unjust “benefits and burdens…apportioned by the market mechanism”—a “spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust.” Operating in this system, Hayek presumed, if one believes she is treated unjustly, her blame must be directed at God, not the “free” market. Dr. Sowell sites a comment by the late renowned American economist Milton Friedman to counter the complaints of those “offended by inequalities and their consequences”:

[A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of (government) force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for “good” (my quotes) purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.]

The American people authorized our federal Constitution “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty” to everyone; not to create equality for anyone.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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