Monday, January 05, 2009

On Equality

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts prompted by a discussion I've been having on the subject of equality. Defining equality, its source, whether it is desirable or achievable is a little harder at first blush than it might seem.

There is, of course, the possibility that the expenditure of effort attempting to achieve equality is wasted.

Equality, after all, cannot be a state in which there are no differences between human beings. Such a state is not possible, at least at the observable level from the perspective of human beings.

Seen from the more distant perspective of the grand scheme of things -- the "God's-eye view," if you will -- the differences we see among ourselves are not operationally significant to the cosmos. Yet from our perspective, which is the only one we can possibly hold with some degree of plausibility, there are differences and they are significant to our existence.

We are different in the principal dimensions, height, length, volume, space and time -- let alone skin color, sex or nationality. No single human being is equal to any other in an algebraic, a-equals-a sense -- except conceptually.

It's the abstract concept of a human being, of which we are individual instances, that gives rise to the idea of equality before the law and material equality.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges evoked some of the problems that such abstract conceptions entail in his 1942 short story Funes, the Memorious. Long one of my favorites, the story is about a ranch hand who hits is head and acquires a memory so prodigious that "he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)."

We are different, indeed, from ourselves. Which "me" has a right to equality: the "me" in pre-school, the "me" in university or the "me" nearing death? Am I less or more equal as a child, an active adult or a senescent man?

In any case, is theoretical legal and material equality of all human beings -- assuming that it is possible -- desirable?

Legal equality means that the same principles should apply to all. Yet in legal systems that attempt a rough kind of equality, such as the case of most Western systems, the principles often have to be twisted in knots to establish "equality" between vastly disparate individuals. Is it really equality if we have to redefine the terms so that they can apply?

Something similar might be asked of material equality. There might be no contest that all human beings should be able to satisfy basic survival needs (although we might argue about what those are), but if one man has a mansion, should everyone have a mansion?

Finally, we come to the cause of inequality, which is twofold: nature and nurture. Some of us are born female, some rich. One is a natural happenstance, the other an entirely human construct.

Dr. King was fully cognizant of the philosophical problems. He merely asked that we use a logic of the heart in our behavior toward one another.

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