What Is Equality?


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All of the above images make distinctions between human beings on grounds of race and colour and these appear to most of us as unacceptable. In fact, such distinctions violate our intuitive understanding of equality which tells us that all human beings should be entitled to the same respect and consideration because of their common humanity.

However, treating people with equal respect need not mean always treating them in an identical way. No society treats all its members in exactly the same way under all conditions. The smooth functioning of society requires division of work and functions and people often enjoy different status and rewards on account of it. At times these differences of treatment may appear acceptable or even necessary. For instance, we usually do not feel that giving prime ministers, or army generals, a special official rank and status goes against the notion of equality, provided their privileges are not misused. But some other kinds of inequalities may seem unjust. For instance, if a child born in a slum is denied nutritious food or good education through no fault of his/her own, it may appear unfair to us.

The question that arises is which distinctions and differences are acceptable and which are not? When people are treated differently just because they are born in a particular religion or race or caste or gender, we regard it as an unacceptable form of inequality. But human beings may pursue different ambitions and goals and not all may be equally successful. So long as they are able to develop the best in themselves we would not feel that equality has been undermined. Some may become good musicians while others may not be equally outstanding, some become famous scientists while others more noted for their hard work and conscientiousness. The commitment to the ideal of equality does not imply the elimination of all forms of differences. It merely suggests that the treatment we receive and the opportunities we enjoy must not be pre-determined by birth or social circumstance.

Equality of Opportunities

The concept of equality implies that all people, as human beings, are entitled to the same rights and opportunities to develop their skills and talents, and to pursue their goals and ambitions. This means that in a society people may differ with regard to their choices and preferences. They may also have different talents and skills which results in some being more successful in their chosen careers than others. But just because only some become ace cricketers or successful lawyers, it does not follow that the society should be considered unequal. In other words, it is not the lack of equality of status or wealth or privilege that is significant but the inequalities in peoples’ access to such basic goods, as education, health care, safe housing, that make for an unequal and unjust society.

Natural and Social Inequalities

Natural inequalities emerge between people as a result of their different capabilities and talents and choices.

Social inequalities emerge as a consequence of inequalities of opportunity or the exploitation of some groups in a society by others.

Natural inequalities are considered to be the result of the different characteristics and abilities with which people are born. It is generally assumed that natural differences cannot be altered. Social inequalities on the other hand are those created by society. Certain societies may, for instance, value those who perform intellectual work over those who do manual work and reward them differently. They may treat differently people of different race, or colour, or gender, or caste.

This distinction is sometimes useful in helping us to distinguish between acceptable and unfair inequalities in society but it is not always clear or self-evident. For instance, when certain inequalities in the treatment of people have existed over a long period of time they may appear to us as justifiable because they are based on natural inequalities, that is, characteristics that people are born with and cannot easily change. For example, women were for long described as ‘the weaker sex’, considered timid and of lesser intelligence than men, needing special protection. Therefore, it was felt that denying women equal rights could be justified. Black people in Africa were considered by their colonial masters to be of lesser intelligence, child-like, and better at manual work, sports and music. This belief was used to justify institutions like slavery. All these assessments are now questioned. They are now seen as distinctions made by society as a result of the differences of power between people and nations rather than based on their inborn characteristics.

Another problem which arises with the idea of natural differences is that some differences which could be considered natural need no longer be seen as unalterable. For instance, advances in medical science and technologies have helped many disabled people to function effectively in society. Today, computers can help blind people, wheel chairs and artificial limbs can help in cases of physical disability, even a person’s looks can be changed with cosmetic surgery. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking can hardly move or speak but he has made major contributions to science. It would seem unjust to most people today if disabled people are denied necessary help to overcome the effects of their disability or a fair reward for their work on the grounds that they are naturally less capable.

Given all these complexities, it would be difficult to use the natural/socially-produced distinction as a standard by which the laws and policies of a society can be assessed. For this reason many theorists today differentiate between inequality arising from our choices and inequalities operating on account of the family or circumstance in which a person is born. It is the latter that is a source of concern to advocates of equality and which they wish to minimise and eliminate.

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Bibliography : NCERT – Political Theory

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