I THE CONCEPT OF EQUALITYFelix E. Oppenheim
II EQUALITY AS AN IDEALIrving Kristol
In the context of the social sciences, the concept of equality refers sometimes to certain properties which men are held to have in common but more often to certain treatments which men either receive or ought to receive. Traditional characterizations of kinds of treatment as either egalitarian or inegalitarian often turn out to be disguised value judgments or empty statements. It is possible, however, to find descriptive criteria apt to capture the egalitarian and inegalitarian features of principles which have been advocated at different times.
Equality of characteristics. Equality must be construed here in the sense of similarity, that is, of agreement in certain properties. That men are equal means that men share some qualities; these must be specified. Men are evidently unequal in many characteristics. There are natural differences (sex, color, character traits, natural endowments, etc.) and institutional variations (citizenship, religion, social rank, etc.). Other properties are common to all but in varying amounts (age, strength, intelligence, possessions, power, etc.). To claim that all men are equal in such respects can only mean that the resemblances are in some way more significant than the differences, as when Hobbes states that “nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body and mind” that the weakest can kill the strongest and no one can outwit the other.
Men are sometimes held to be equal in the sense of having a common “human nature”-a tautological assertion, unless it is specified that all are naturally good or sinful or that they have the same basic motives (say, self-interest), or common basic needs, or similar capacities to feel pleasure and pain, or the same ability to act deliberately and to choose rationally.
Equality of treatment. Moralists ever since the Stoics have claimed that men, in spite of differences of character or intelligence, are of equal dignity, worth, or desert. Statements of this kind are to be interpreted in a normative sense, to the effect that all men are entitled to be treated equally. The same applies to the allegation that all men have the same moral or natural rights. To say that I have a moral right implies that others should let me exercise it (whereas to have a legal right means that it is conferred by positive law). Thus, Locke interprets his own statement “that men by nature are equal” as referring, not to “all sorts of equality,” since men differ as to “age or virtue,” but to “the equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom”; this means that men “should also be equal amongst another,” that is, that they should be given the corresponding legal rights. Analogously, to claim that those of one nation or race or class are “superior” to all others is to hold that they ought to receive preferential treatment.
Whether individuals or groups are, in fact, treated equally or unequally by others depends on the way in which benefits or burdens are allotted to them. These may be legal rights (e.g., to own property, to vote) and legal duties (e.g., to respect the rights of others); material benefits (e.g., wages, unemployment benefits, social services) and liabilities (e.g., punishment, taxation, military service); and opportunities (e.g., to hold certain positions or offices).
Factual statements about equality may be about equality of either characteristics or treatment. Normative statements about equality are always concerned with treatment but may contain references to characteristics as well, as when it is being argued that men should be treated equally because they are equal in certain characteristics. References to both characteristics and treatment are also contained in general rules of the type: all persons having a certain characteristic are to be allotted a certain benefit or burden (in such and such an amount). This leads to the question of how to determine whether an actual or proposed kind of treatment is egalitarian.
Traditional criteria of egalitarianism
(1) Impartiality. Equal treatment means, first of all, the impartial allocation of some benefit or burden by one actor to another, say, by a judge to a claimant. Equality before the law thus means impartial application of the law. Allocations are impartial or partial only by reference to a rule of allocation. With respect to a specified legal or moral rule, a person is treated impartially by another provided his allotment is determined exclusively by the rule itself and not by other factors, such as the latter person’s like or dislike of the former. Partiality (allotments made in violation of some given rule) would be the only kind of inegalitarian treatment in this sense. Since any rule—for example, one restricting suffrage to adult citizens or to white citizens—can be applied impartially or partially, we must determine the conditions under which rules themselves are to be considered egalitarian.
(2) Equal shares to all. According to the utilitarians, “everybody [is] to count for one, nobody for more than one” in the allocation of benefits and burdens—not of every conceivable kind, of course, but of certain specified types. Similarly, “equality” to the French revolutionaries meant that the same basic legal rights should be granted by every government to all its citizens. Rules which allocate a benefit or burden in equal amounts to everyone are undoubtedly egalitarian.
(3) Equal shares to equals. Most rules of allocation grant equal shares of some kind, not to all generally but to all who are equal with respect to some property; for example, all adult citizens have the right to vote; whoever commits a certain crime shall suffer a certain punishment; persons within the same income bracket are liable to the same income tax. According to the previous criterion, such rules would not be egalitarian. The concept of egalitarianism has therefore been enlarged to cover rules which allot “equal shares to equals”; and a rule is considered inegalitarian by Aristotle “when either equals are awarded unequal shares or unequals equal shares.”
Now, every rule may be considered egalitarian in this sense; for a rule stipulates that all, or else that only those who are equal in a specified respect, receive the same specified treatment. Universal suffrage means that the right to vote is given to all adult citizens but not to minors and aliens. A graduated income tax treats any two taxpayers within the same bracket equally and any two within different brackets unequally. To treat all whites alike and all Negroes alike but persons of different color differently is to practice racial discrimination. Every conceivable rule treats equals (in some specified respect) equally and unequals unequally.
(4 ) Proportional equality. To narrow down the criterion again, unequal allotments have been held, ever since Aristotle, to be egalitarian if and only if they satisfy the requirement of “proportional equality.” A rule is generally considered to satisfy this requirement if it provides that the amount of benefit or burden is a monotonically increasing function of the specified characteristic; that is, the more of the characteristic, the more benefit or burden. And any two persons are treated “in proportion to their inequality,” provided the difference in the amount allotted to each is similarly correlated to the degree in which they differ in the characteristic specified by the rule. But again, any rule which allots “equal shares to equals” implicitly not only allots “unequal shares to unequals” but also allots them “in proportion to their inequality.” Both rules-“to each according to his need” and “to each according to his height”—assign different shares to different persons in the proportion in which they differ as to need or as to height. A flat rate and a graduated income tax both fulfill the requirement of proportional equality.
(5) Unequal shares corresponding to relevant differences. Inequality in allotment has been held to be egalitarian provided it is based on relevant differences in personal characteristics. Thus, age and citizenship are relevant to voting rights but not so sex or race or wealth; it is therefore held egalitarian to limit the franchise to adult citizens but inegalitarian to restrict it to men or whites or poll-tax payers. Wealth is relevant to taxation; hence, a graduated income tax is viewed as egalitarian but not a sales tax, which disregards this relevant criterion by taxing poor and wealthy buyers at the same rate.
Judgments to the effect that characteristic x is relevant to treatment y are valuational, not factual. That color is not relevant to voting but age is means that it is unjust to base the franchise on color and just to require a minimum age. Equality becomes tantamount to distributive justice: “The unjust is unequal, the just is equal” (Aristotle); that is, it is unjust to make unequal awards to those who share a relevant characteristic. Or, in a recent formulation: to be egalitarian, “a difference of treatment requires justification in terms of relevant and sufficient differences between the claimants” (Ginsberg 1965, p. 79; italics added). The same purely normative criterion underlies the idea of “equality of consideration,” that is, “that none shall be held to have a claim to better treatment than another, in advance of good grounds being produced” (Benn & Peters 1959, p. 110; italics removed). This principle is not only purely valuational but also purely procedural—compatible with whatever substantive discriminatory rule may be established on “good grounds.”
(6) To each according to his desert. According to Aristotle, a person’s desert is the only characteristic relevant to allocations. To be both egalitarian and just, these must therefore be based on proportionate equality on the basis of desert. The problem is here merely pushed a step further back, since judgments of someone’s relative desert are again valuational. Unless there are objective criteria for relevant or just or good grounds for differential treatment or for a person’s desert or worth, it is impossible to refute the racist’s counterclaim that color is relevant to franchise or that whites are of superior worth. (His claim that color is relevant to intelligence would be an empirical one and could be refuted on empirical grounds, but it is intelligence rather than color or desert which he proposes in this case as a relevant criterion for granting franchise.) According to criteria 3 and 4, every rule of allocation is egalitarian, and any rule may be considered just and hence egalitarian according to criteria 5 and 6.
Operational criteria of egalitarianism
(1) Egalitarian rules of allocation and distribution. Even advocates of racial discrimination are likely to consider it egalitarian to give preferential treatment to the needy regardless of race but inegalitarian to give it to whites regardless of need. The reason seems to be that the first policy aims at the equal satisfaction of everybody’s basic needs, while the second is incompatible with that principle. This points to a distinction which must be made between (1) rules which determine how some benefit or burden is to be allocated among persons, that is, how much of it is to be given to each or to be taken from each, and (2) rules concerning the distribution of a benefit or burden which is to result from some allocation, that is, how much each person is to have at the end.
Rules of allocation and rules of distribution may be (a) egalitarian or (b) inegalitarian. Rules of allocation are egalitarian if they allocate the same kind or amount of benefit or burden to all. Similarly, rules of distribution are egalitarian if they stipulate that all are to have equal shares. Here are some examples: (la) universal suffrage, universal head tax; (lb) suffrage only for whites, graduated income tax; (2a) political equality, equality of possessions; (2b) political inequality, inequality of possessions.
(2) Inegalitarian allocations compatible with egalitarian distributions. Egalitarian allocations often lead to egalitarian distributions and inegalitarian allocations to inegalitarian distributions. Universal suffrage promotes political equality, not so suffrage for whites only. But an egalitarian distribution does not necessarily require an egalitarian allocation. For example, to bring about an equal distribution of the holdings of A, who has 8 units, and of B, who has 2, it is necessary to take, say, 3 from A and to give 3 to B. But taking 1 from A and 1 from B would leave the previous inequality of their distribution unaffected. Egalitarian allocations may thus result in inegalitarian distributions. With respect to an egalitarian rule of distribution, a rule of allocation may be said to be egalitarian if its application is a means to, or a consequence of, the former’s implementation and inegalitarian if it is incompatible with the former. A rule of allocation which is intrinsically inegalitarian may thus be egalitarian with respect to some egalitarian rule of distribution, while an intrinsically egalitarian rule of allocation may be inegalitarian in this respect. With respect to equality (or rather, to reducing inequality) of wealth, a graduated income tax is egalitarian and a head tax is inegalitarian.
(3) Degrees of egalitarianism. A rule of allocation or of distribution may be considered more egalitarian (or less inegalitarian) than another if it insures “that a larger number of persons (or classes of persons) shall receive similar treatment in specified circumstances” (Berlin [1955-1956] 1961, p. 135)—or rather, similar preferential treatment. Universal suffrage which excludes only minors and aliens is more egalitarian than suffrage which excludes also Negroes and may therefore be considered fully egalitarian for practical purposes. Disenfranchising women is more inegalitarian than disenfranchising Negroes if the latter constitute a small segment of the population but less inegalitarian if Negroes form a large percentage.
On the basis of these purely descriptive criteria, persons with divergent value commitments can agree (or disagree) on an empirical level whether a given rule of allocation or of distribution is egalitarian and to what degree, and whether a rule of allocation is egalitarian with respect to some egalitarian rule of distribution. The resulting classification corresponds in a satisfactory way to our everyday distinctions between egalitarian and inegalitarian treatment.
Instances of egalitarianism
Equality of opportunity. Equal treatment of all in every respect was advocated by some nineteenth-century anarchists: equality of occupation (for example, intellectuals would participate in manual work), of consumption (all would eat and even dress alike), and especially of education would ultimately wipe out existing inequalities of talent and capacity. Most egalitarians, however, consider such an ultimate goal neither desirable nor possible. They realize that in every society individuals are bound to have varying degrees of ability and to hold positions that yield varying degrees of status if not of remuneration. How to match unequal individuals with unequal positions has been their central concern and equality of opportunity their principal answer. This rule deals with the distribution of access to positions in society, not with the allocation of the positions themselves. Opportunities to occupy all positions, including the most attractive ones, are to be distributed in an egalitarian way to all on a competitive basis, regardless of such differences as social status or economic resources and regardless even of differences of ability, since “the least able and the most able are given an equal start in the race for success” (Pennock 1950, p. 81). If everyone has an equal start, then the position he will occupy at the end will, in theory at least, depend exclusively on how far and how fast he runs, that is, on his own resourcefulness (but also on his luck). As the French Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed: all citizens “are equally eligible to all honors, places and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”
Legal equality. “Equality of opportunity, in the broad sense of the career open to personality, is and has been the inclusive goal within which the partial goals of the special equalities have their significance” (Hofstadter 1956, p. 137). Equality of legal rights has been, historically, the first of these special equalities. Classical liberalism held that the equal distribution of opportunities required merely the equal allocation of the basic rights of “life, liberty, and property.” If legal privileges are abolished and legal rights protected, no obstacle will stand in the way of anyone’s pursuit of happiness.
Equal satisfaction of basic needs. Increasing industrialization brought about an increasing awareness that equality of opportunity cannot be achieved by the “majestic equality of the law which forbids rich and poor alike to steal bread and to sleep under bridges” (Anatole France). Equality of opportunity does presuppose the equal allotment of certain rights, but it also requires the application of another egalitarian rule of distribution, namely, equality of the satisfaction of certain basic needs, which in turn calls for an inegalitarian rule of allotment: privileges for the economically underprivileged. Indeed, those who lack the basic physical or educational necessities do not have the same opportunities to reach the higher positions as do the better endowed. To bring the former up to the general starting line, government must compensate them for these initial disadvantages by means of social legislation and social services such as minimum wages, tax exemptions, unemployment benefits, free public schools, and scholarships.
Equality of opportunity is not simply a matter of legal equality. Its existence depends, not merely on the absence of disabilities, but on the presence of abilities. It obtains in so far as, and only in so far as, each member of a community, whatever his birth, or occupation, or social position, possesses in fact, and not merely in form, equal chances of using to the full his natural endowments of physique, of character, and of intelligence. (Tawney  1965, pp. 103-104)
To condemn such inegalitarian allotment is to oppose equality of opportunity. Herbert Spencer agreed with his neoliberal opponents that “insuring to each the right to pursue within the specified limits the objects of his desires without let or hindrance is quite a separate thing from insuring him satisfaction” but insisted that the state should “confine itself to guaranteeing the rights of its members” and not “assume the role of Reliever-general to the poor.” Such advocacy of mere equality of rights had by that time become an inegalitarian policy which deprived the poor of equality of opportunity and promoted the “survival” of the wealthy at their expense.
Privileges for nobles or property owners and disabilities imposed on a particular sex, religion, or race are inegalitarian, not only in themselves but probably also with respect to any conceivable egalitarian rule of distribution. But privileges for religious, racial, or ethnic minorities may constitute an egalitarian policy when these are considered as constituting economically or socially disadvantaged groups.
Economic equality. Equality of the right of property is compatible with extreme inequality in the distribution of property. Equality of opportunity does not imply equalization of wealth either, certainly not at the end of the “race for success.” Nevertheless, to give all an equal start, some must be lifted up and others moved down. The equal satisfaction of basic needs as a precondition for equality of opportunity does require economic equality, that is, a reduction of extreme inequalities in the distribution of commodities. “By equality, we should understand, not that the degree of power and riches be absolutely identical for everybody, but that … no citizen be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself (Rousseau). “The socialist seeks a distribution of rewards, status, and privileges egalitarian enough to … equalize opportunities” (Crosland  1957, p. 113). With respect to this goal, unequal taxation of unequal incomes is egalitarian.
Common ownership of the means of production. Marx, too, realized that “one man is superior to another physically and mentally” and interpreted equality—at least in the first phase of communism —as the opportunity for each to occupy the position which corresponds to his ability. Contrary to the neoliberals and socialists, Marx believed that this goal could not be reached through a redistribution of the means of consumption (the demand for fair distribution as well as for equal rights was to him “obsolete verbal rubbish”) but only through the abolition of private control of the means of production. Their “common ownership” would eliminate the possibility of exploitation and class struggle; and “with the abolition of class distinctions, all social and political inequality arising from them would automatically disappear by itself.”
To each according to his merit. If there is equality of opportunity and if higher positions bring higher salaries, both will go to those of greater merit or ability. The result would ideally be, “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent” (Young  1959, p. 19). Unequal allocation of rewards, correlated with inequality of ability, is a consequence of equal distribution of opportunities. With respect to equality of opportunity, rewards according to merit in the sense of ability is therefore an egalitarian principle.
This is not so with rewards according to merit in the sense of desert. Plato and Aristotle held not only that people’s relative desert or moral worth can be objectively ascertained but also that “there are innate differences which fit them for different occupations” (Plato), that “a distinction is already marked, immediately at birth between those who are intended for being ruled and those who are intended to rule” (Aristotle), and between those who are “by nature” either slaves or free. Each is to be assigned the function corresponding to his pre-established desert. Aristotle’s principle of “proportional equality according to desert” is really inegalitarian, not only intrinsically but also with respect to equality of opportunity and probably every other egalitarian rule of distribution. For the same reason, all rigidly stratified societies are inegalitarian, from feudalism to the Indian caste system.
To each according to his need. Equality of opportunity does not, however, necessarily entail that rewards (as well as positions) go to each according to his ability. Marxists believe that the first stage of communism, in which means of consumption are distributed according to the work performed, will inevitably evolve, in Lenin’s words, “from formal equality to real equality, i.e., to realizing the rule: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’” Positions would still be correlated to ability, but everyone (so Marxists believe) will work spontaneously to the best of his ability even without incentives, and compensations will differ according to need, regardless of the type of work. With respect to equality of opportunity to occupy various positions, this would be another egalitarian rule of allocation.
Political equality. While some political thinkers have advocated the equalization of political power through direct democracy or predicted the abolition of political power through the withering away of the state, it is generally assumed that political power is ubiquitous and always unevenly distributed and that political equality can only mean equality of opportunity to participate in the political process. Political equality has therefore been associated with the democratic institutions of suffrage, representation, and majority rule. Early liberals did not include political rights among the basic rights to be given to all; they demanded merely that wealth should replace birth as a criterion for franchise. Extending suffrage to all property owners was originally an egalitarian demand directed against hereditary privileges of the nobility. Property qualifications for voting rights became an inegalitarian rule when it was invoked in defense of vested property interests against proponents of universal suffrage (which was not instituted in most countries until the decline of laissez-faire liberalism).
Egalitarianism and other social goals
Egalitarian rules may conflict not only with one another (for example, equality of rights and of opportunities, equality of opportunities and of welfare) but also with other social goals. The equal distribution of welfare does not necessarily lead to its maximization. The latter goal might be most effectively realized by slavery or by wage incentives to higher production far greater than would be compatible with equality of welfare and even of opportunity. Equal welfare and equal freedom, too, are competing goals, since the former goal requires government to impose greater restrictions on the freedom of economically dominant groups. Freedom of all citizens with respect to government may result in suppression of freedom of the minority of individualists by the majority of conformists. Equalization of wealth does away with the leisure class, which some consider essential to cultural development. Egalitarianism may thus lead to downward leveling and stifle individuality, diversity, and cultural excellence. Greater equality of opportunity may also generate more frustration and greater unhappiness. Political equality entails majority rule, but the majority may decide on inegalitarian policies. Both Edmund Burke and J. S. Mill were in substantial agreement as to these causal ramifications; yet, the former drew the balance in favor of inegalitarianism, while the latter espoused egalitarianism.
Inegalitarian rules are usually advocated as means to other goals, such as order, efficiency, diversity, and cultural excellence. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is more often considered intrinsically desirable and morally right. Both egalitarian and inegalitarian principles have been held demonstrably valid on the ground that they are “in agreement with nature.” That men should receive equal treatment has been taken as a normative conclusion from the factual premise that “men are equal”—unless this statement itself is interpreted in a normative sense (see above). But it has also been argued that men ought to be treated unequally because they are of unequal rank or ability or race.
Yet, normative principles cannot be derived from factual generalizations; neither equality nor inequality of characteristics entails the desirability of either egalitarian or inegalitarian treatment. There is surely no inconsistency in maintaining that men should be treated equally (e.g., as to rights) in spite of the fact that they are unequal (e.g., as to natural endowments) or that they should be treated unequally (e.g., as to salary) regardless of their common features (e.g., as to basic needs). Once the causal connections between egalitarianism or inegalitarianism and other social goals have been clarified, the adoption of one or the other of these two normative doctrines remains a matter of subjective commitment.
Felix E. Oppenheim
Benn, Stanley I.; and PETERS, RICHARD S. 1959 Social Principles and the Democratic State. London: Allen & Unwin. → See especially Chapters 5 and 6.
Berlin, Isaiah (1955-1956) 1961 Equality as an Ideal. Pages 128-150 in Frederick A. Olafson (editor), Justice and Social Policy: A Collection of Essays. Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → First published in Volume 56 of Aristotelian Society, Proceedings.
Crosland, Charles A. R. (1956) 1957 The Future of Socialism. New York: Macmillan.
Ginsberg, Morris 1965 On Justice in Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Penguin.
Hofstadter, Albert 1956 The Career Open to Personality. Pages 111-142 in Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Aspects of Human Equality: Fifteenth Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Edited by Lyman Bryson et al. New York: The Conference; Harper.
Lakoff, Sanford A. 1964 Equality in Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
PENNOCK, J. ROLAND 1950 Liberal Democracy: Its Merits and Prospects. New York: Rinehart.
PENNOCK, J. ROLAND (editor) 1967 Equality. Nomos No. 9. New York: Atherton.
Sartori, Giovanni 1962 Democratic Theory. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Praeger.
Tawney, R. H. (1931) 1965 Equality. 4th ed., rev. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Williams, Bernard (1962) 1963 The Idea of Equality. Pages 110-131 in Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (editors), Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series): A Collection. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Wollheim, Richard (1955-1956) 1961 Equality and Equal Rights. Pages 111-127 in Frederick A. Olafson (editor), Justice and Social Policy: A Collection of Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → First published in Volume 56 of Aristotelian Society, Proceedings.
Young, Michael D. (1958) 1959 The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution. New York: Random House.
Among the definitions of “equality” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary are the following three: (1) “the condition of having equal dignity, rank, or privileges with others”; (2) “the condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence”; (3) “fairness, impartiality, equity, due proportion, proportionateness.”
A moment’s contemplation will reveal that these three definitions of “equality,” although all of them are consistent with common usage, are not entirely or necessarily consistent with one another. If, for example, men are unequal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence, then an adherence to definition (3) will lead to a violation of definition (1), while an adherence to definition (1) will lead to a violation of definition (3). It is only if men are in fact equal in power, ability, and excellence that equity preserves a condition of equal rank.
But, in fact, men are not equal in power, ability, and excellence. From this it would seem to follow that justice requires a certain measure of inequality. And, indeed, in all social orders, no matter how vehement their passion for equality, we observe that some inequalities are regarded as inevitable and natural. At the same time, no egalitarian society can have an easy conscience about the inequalities within it. There is a sentiment, inchoate yet profound, that no matter how unequal men may be in their abilities, in some deeper sense all men are equal merely by virtue of being men.
The issue of legitimacy . It is certainly true that, in Western civilization at least, men have always believed that equality is in some sense the norm from which inequality represents a deviation. As Wollheim and Berlin have pointed out (1955-1956, pp. 281 ff.), the “naturalness” of the idea of equality seems to derive from the dual assumption that (a) men are all members of one species, of a simple class of objects (i.e., human beings) and (b) all members of a class should be treated uniformly, unless there is good and sufficient reason not to do so. This assumption, Berlin emphasizes, is so pervasive that it has almost the status of a category (in the Kantian sense) of human rationality:
If I have a cake, and there are ten persons among whom I wish to divide it, then if I give exactly one tenth to each, this will not, at any rate automatically, call for justification; whereas if I depart from this principle of equal division I am expected to produce a special reason. It is some sense of this, however latent, that makes equality an ideal which has never seemed intrinsically eccentric …. (ibid., p. 305)
This being the case, it is not surprising that all the golden ages, all the utopias, and all the paradises created by the human imagination are egalitarian (although not necessarily democratic—there may be an infinitely benevolent, if scrupulously egalitarian, despot). However, whereas in classical antiquity, utopia is located in word, not in deed, and in the succeeding Christian centuries it is located in transcendent hope rather than in actuality, in the modern era utopia has become an “ideal” to be realized (if never fully realized) by human effort.
For Plato, as later for Augustine and Aquinas, utopia is conceived as prehistorical, as existing prior to some primordial Fall—a catastrophe that implicates the entire human race and that sets the conditions of its destiny and its progress. The outstanding consequence of this Fall is the abolition of original equality and the establishment of the principle of hierarchy as the “natural” principle of cosmic and social order. The original, harmonious prehistorical unity is shattered, and the universe becomes subject to differentiation—soul and matter, spirit and flesh, idea and reality are now opposite poles, between which the tension of existence tries to maintain an equilibrium. The most perfect equilibrium (indeed, the only enduring one) is, obviously, that which recognizes the superiority of the noble over the base—of soul over matter, spirit over flesh, idea over actuality. The articulation of this order results in a metaphysics of hierarchy, in which both the cosmos and human society are envisaged as part of a “great chain of being,” with precedence and consequence clearly defined and with noblesse oblige and humble obedience the only two reasonable political perspectives available to the human imagination.
It requires more empathy than most twentieth century men possess to realize how utterly “natural” the idea of hierarchy came to seem to classical and medieval thinkers—and even to most modern thinkers prior to the American and French revolutions. We are inclined to view this as an antiegalitarian mode of thought, but the idea of hierarchy saw itself as containing the only feasible idea of political equality, rather than as in any way opposing equality. For equality was defined in terms of justice—of giving each man his due, so that equal men received equal rewards. That all men were not equal—and certainly not equal in all respects—was a platitude confirmed daily by the most casual observation. The hierarchical idea was accepted in good faith and good conscience by almost everyone; if we now deem it an ideology, then it was the ideology not of a class but of an entire historical epoch.
It is Shakespeare, through the sublimity of his language, who makes the older idea of hierarchy available to us better than any political philosopher. Ulysses’ speech on “degree,” in Troilus and Cressida, is the locus classicus:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place, …
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors,
Divert, and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres,
laurels, But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy… . (Act I, scene 3)
Yet even as Shakespeare wrote these lines, the planets were on their way “in evil mixture to disorder wander.” As Sanford A. Lakoff pointed out in his historical survey Equality in Political Philosophy (1964), the new astronomy replaced the cosmos with a neutral universe in which “the laws of nature” applied without distinction to heavenly and earthly bodies. Simultaneously, the rise of experimental science and the overthrow of Aristotelian teleology nullified previous distinctions between “base” and “noble” in nature—and, most especially, in human nature. Just as the new physical science declared all the parts of nature to be equal, so the new scientific (i.e., materialistic) psychology declared all the parts of man to be equal—none was intrinsically base or intrinsically noble. The denial of the superiority of spirit over matter, and of mind over body, inevitably suggested that there was no good reason for those who worked with their hands to have an inferior status compared with those whose work was nonmanual and nonmenial. In this way the philosophical foundations of modern bourgeois society were established.
Christianity itself, in the course of its several “reformations,” buttressed these new foundations (without, however, necessarily intending this result). Luther’s denial of the distinction between “spiritual” and “carnal” authorities and vocations was destructive of churchly hierarchy. The keys of St. Peter were distributed among the congregation of believers, as the monopoly of the Catholic clergy over the apostolic succession was denied and as its exclusive authority to interpret Scripture faithfully was transferred to the entire body of Christendom. Successive generations of reformers carried this antiauthoritarian impulse forward, so that Christendom itself experienced the multiplication of new self-governing and (in the literal sense of the term) self-righteous sects and denominations.
The response to inequality . But while these secular and religious trends were to create the bourgeois world, energies were being released that were to point beyond this world. Even during the Middle Ages, Christian Messianism was only with difficulty kept within the confines of the church; and as the authority of the church crumbled, this messianism became an independent spiritual and political force. The kingdom of God was transferred from a transcendental hereafter to this world, this time, this place.
It was during the English revolution of 1640-1660 that Christian Messianism first revealed its full political ambitions. There had been previous incidents, to be sure (e.g., the Anabaptist revolts in Germany), but these had as their primary aim the creation of local utopias. In contrast, the leftwing Commonwealth’s-men sought not only to transform their own national society but also to prescribe principles for all truly Christian and truly just societies. Overton, the Leveller, spoke in the recognizable accents of modernity when he said: “Every man by nature being a king, priest, prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose right and freedom it is” (Lakoff 1964, p. 65). In declarations such as these, the metaphysical foundations of egalitarian, representative self-government were firmly outlined. It required only the slightest amendment for these metaphysical foundations to be entirely secularized, with “rights” and “freedoms” the prerogatives of men qua men, rather than merely men qua Christians. The political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries moved steadily in this direction, and the political ideologists of the American and French revolutions acted violently upon these new principles of civic organization.
As has been noted, however, even as modern, liberal society was being formed, there was an egalitarian perspective that looked beyond it. This perspective delineated not merely an equality of rights and freedoms but a fraternal equality of condition. Thus, Winstanley, the Digger, prefigured the socialist idea of equality with his declaration that “the earth was made by Almighty God to be a common treasury of livelihood for whole mankind in all his branches …”-(Lakoff 1964, p. 79). This is socialism, but of a premodern kind. The “common treasury” is a static conception of wealth, and all premodern socialist thinkers envisaged a good society as one of economic modesty rather than of economic abundance—goods were to be distributed equally, and everyone was to be content with what he had. It was not until the nineteenth century that modern socialism, alert to the possibilities of the industrial and technological revolutions it was witnessing, put forward the prospect of equality conjoined to increasing wealth for all. Since premodern socialism demanded a certain measure of asceticism from its adherents, while modern socialism could appeal simultaneously to human idealism and to human appetites, it is not surprising that modern socialism has a far more powerful popular appeal.
It is a distinguishing characteristic of the modern age that “equality” should be not merely an abstract ideal but also a politically aggressive idea. It is generally accepted—it is, indeed, one of the most deeply rooted conventions of contemporary political thought—that the existence of inequality is a legitimate provocation to social criticism. Every inequality is on the defensive, must prove itself against the imputation of injustice and unnaturalness. And where such proof is established, it never asserts itself beyond the point where inequality is to be tolerated because it is, under particular conditions, inescapable. That inequality may be per se desirable is a thought utterly repugnant to the modern sensibility.
The modern egalitarian impulse has had its objective social correlatives. Modern society tends to have a more equal distribution of income and wealth than previous social orders in Western history. Statistics are fragmentary and are open to dispute as to their significance. But, for France, Jean Fourastié ( 1960, p. 30) has made the following estimate: “The salary of a councilor of state increased by a factor of at least 40 from 1800 to 1948; the salary of a professor at the Collége de France by 100; the average salary of an office boy in a government agency by 220; the hourly wages of labourers in provincial cities by more than 400.” The general tendency would seem to be unmistakable.
The limits and potential of equality . Nevertheless, there is considerable controversy over the issue of whether equality has been adequately realized in our modern social arrangements. This controversy derives in large part from the ambiguities inherent in the idea of equality. Thus, a comparative percentile increase for lower-income groups represents a step toward equality only from a limited, statistical point of view. In another perspective, it can be regarded as a movement toward further inequality. For when a man’s income is increased from a million dollars a year to two million (i.e., doubled), while another’s income is increased from one thousand to five thousand (i.e., quintupled), it can fairly be said that the rich man has benefited more notably—in absolute magnitudes—than the poor. Whether one wishes to make such an assertion will depend entirely upon one’s conception of equality—whether, that is, one is measuring equality by absolute or relative standards. The progressive income tax represents an effort by the modern state to mediate between these two notions of equality.
A similar ambiguity—between equality of condition and equality of opportunity—plays a most significant role in American social and political thought. Equality of opportunity will inevitably result in inequality of condition, since some men are more able, more energetic, and more fortunate than others. The American creed sanctions such inequality—but only halfheartedly. For there has always been an implicit corollary—derived from the premise that all men are created equal—that equality of opportunity ought to lead to approximate equality of condition, and that failure to realize this goal reflects a deficiency (if not a positive error) in the existing social and economic arrangements. The tides of American politics flow between these two polar conceptions of equality.
In recent years, some of the leading thinkers of American sociology have attempted to transcend this debate over equality by declaring inequality to be a necessary condition of all social organization. To some extent, this effort originates in the experience of just how little effect popular or political ideas about equality have on comparable social structures. The distribution of income in all modern industrialized nations is astonishingly similar, no matter whether the governing ideology of this nation be socialist (e.g., Sweden) or capitalist (e.g., the United States). Instead of wondering about the origins of inequality and of social classes—as did the sociologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—such thinkers as Talcott Parsons, Kingsley Davis, and Wilbert E. Moore have attempted to demonstrate that social differentiation and social stratification are indispensable to the very existence of a social structure—that each society has functional “norms,” both inwardly and outwardly coercive, which prescribe the acceptable degrees and kinds of inequality to be tolerated.
This sociological thesis represents a covert return to the hierarchical principles of distributive justice and proportional equality elaborated by Aristotle in Book v of the Ethica nicomachea and Book III of the Politics. And since the history of the idea of equality in the Western world is to a considerable extent a record of intermittent, and sometimes violent, dissatisfaction with these principles, it is understandable that the debate over equality should be an unending one, with every new resolution the occasion for a new beginning.
[See also DEMOCRACY; HUMAN RIGHTS; JUSTICE.]
ARISTOTLE Ethica nicomachea. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.
ARISTOTLE Politics. With an English translation. London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959.
Dahrendorf, Ralf 1962 On the Origin of Social Inequality. Pages 88-109 in Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman (editors), Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series): A Collection. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1844) 1920 Politics. Pages 310-323 in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series. New York: Dutton.
Fourastie, Jean (1951) 1960 The Causes of Wealth. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published in French.
Lakoff, Sanford A. 1964 Equality in Political Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
WOLLHEIM, RICHARD; and BERLIN, ISAIAH 1955-1956 Equality. Parts 1-2. Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy, London, Proceedings 56: 281-326.
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Equality is a highly complex concept, there being as many forms of equality as there are ways of comparing the conditions of human existence. Equality can refer to numerous features of human life, which is why the term is usually preceded by an adjective that specifies which one is captured, such as social equality, legal equality, political equality, formal equality, or racial equality, to mention but a few. This entry will focus on the more important variants.
There is, firstly, political or legal equality, which is concerned with the right to vote, to stand for office, and to be treated equally before the law, irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, disability, social background, or other such features. In medieval times, rulers took it for granted that hierarchy is natural or inevitable and that a few are entitled to privileges denied to the many. One of the achievements of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was the acknowledgement that all human beings have equal moral worth by virtue of a shared human essence. The Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”) enshrined this principle in the national constitutions of the United States and France, respectively.
Numerous privileges of rank and order that had survived from feudal times were abolished in the following centuries: Slavery was done away with, universal suffrage was introduced, public offices were opened up to competition, and racial segregation was replaced with racial integration. Not everyone has been content with these achievements, however, and many today demand further changes, particularly with regard to race relations, gender equality in the workplace, and the rights of the disabled.
While the struggles over legal and political equality continue, the academic discourse in the social sciences has been concerned more with another type of equality, namely, that of substantive equality.
Political thinkers started to question the worth of the principle of political or legal equality, given that, if left on its own, it merely grants each person an equal right to eat in an expensive restaurant—in the sense that no one is excluded on the grounds of race, gender, or religion—but entirely fails to address individuals’ capacity to exercise that right, that is, their money. If wealth or some other measure of welfare is a prerequisite for exercising rights to equal treatment in other spheres, the question arises as to how social goods should be distributed. Once this normative issue is settled within political philosophy, the related practical question in public policy becomes imminent as to whether, how, and to what extent liberal democracies should ensure a level of substantive equality.
While many issues surrounding this question remain contentious, others are now regarded as relatively uncontroversial. Figure 1 depicts some of the more important debates carried out in political philosophy in recent decades. Once substantive equality is agreed upon as an aim worth pursuing, it is necessary to specify if equality is seen as an instrumental or intrinsic ideal. A wide consensus in favor of the latter has emerged, which states that equality is a good thing because of its implications for values other than equality itself, such as greater individual choice, personal autonomy, or the capacity to exercise rights. Hence, the desirability of a more equal distribution is due, not to the fact that it is more equal but that it is expected to promote that other value. Inequality can therefore be acceptable, provided a so-called Pareto improvement is achieved so that at least one person has been made better off without making anyone else worse off.
On the next level, the concept of equality requires a further distinction between individual features that result from voluntary choices and those that are a product of social and natural circumstances. The majority of egalitarian philosophers claim that it is unfair if, to employ a term coined by John Rawls (1921–2002), “morally arbitrary factors” differentially influence the course of people’s lives, and that redistribution is justified as a way of neutralizing them (1971). The fundamental aim of equality should be to compensate people for undeserved bad luck, for aspects of their situations for which they are not responsible. As Ronald Dworkin states (2000), there is a moral warrant to level the inequalities in the distribution of social goods that are generated by differing endowments, while leaving intact those inequalities generated by differential effort,
planning, and risk taking. No one deserves their genetic endowments or other accidents of birth, such as who their parents are and where they were born. The advantages that flow from those blessed with such fortunes must not be retained exclusively by them.
This is the stage where the traces of consensus in political philosophy end, as much work in the discipline has been dedicated unsuccessfully to the subsequent question as to what it is that is to be equalized. The aim has been to establish the appropriate standard of interpersonal comparison, or “currency” of egalitarian justice. Several suggestions have been made. Rawls proposes what he calls “primary goods”: income, wealth, opportunity, and the bases of self respect. Nobel laureate Armatya Sen concentrates on “capabilities” to choose between various “functionings” that a person is able to realize in his or her life. Further accounts are G. A. Cohen’s “access to advantage” and Dworkin’s “resources.”
The diversity of these proposals shows how difficult it is to assess the features of an individual’s conditions that are to be rendered equal: They all have different causes and require compensation in a different way. Should we follow proposals that ensure an equal end-state outcome? Or should we guarantee equality achieved at some initial point in time, irrespective of what level of equality is achieved thereafter?
While the debate in political philosophy is ongoing, substantive equality is a more imminent concern for political practice, where policymakers in liberal democracies face pressures from their electorates if they fail to take measures that ensure equal life prospects to some degree. Historically, the welfare state has been the vehicle through which governments have sought to address the problem. Social and economic security has been provided to the state’s population by means of pensions, social security benefits, free health care, and so forth. However, increasing pressures of globalization toward the end of the twentieth century compelled welfare states to subject their public expenditures to much more stringent economic scrutiny. Public spending and taxes were cut and responsibility for welfare was reassigned from the state to the individual. States have done so to varying degrees, however, and the measurable levels of equality today differ markedly as a result.
When complex social phenomena are condensed into a single measure, criticism is bound to arise. Even so, the most common statistical index in the social sciences to measure substantive equality within a society is the so-called Gini-coefficient, named after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini (1884–1965). The Gini-coefficient (Figure 2) varies between the limits of 0 (perfect equality) and 1 (perfect inequality) and is best captured visually with the help of a diagram that measures the percentage share of the population on the x axis and the percentage income distribution on the y axis. The coefficient represents the geometrical divergence of the so-called Lorenz curve, which measures the actual percentage income distribution, from a line with a 45-degree angle, which represents perfect equality, in the sense that everyone is equally
wealthy. The closer the Lorenz curve is to the diagonal line, the smaller the shaded area beneath that line, and the smaller the resultant Gini-coefficient, the more equal is the society’s income distribution.
During the 1980s and 1990s, some advanced industrial nations experienced significant shifts in this coefficient, most notably the United Kingdom and the United States, where the neoliberal economic policies introduced by the governments of the day brought about notable increases in income inequality. As statistics produced by the United Nations show (UNDP 2005), in the United Kingdom the Gini-coefficient rose from 0.25 in 1979 to 0.35 in 2000, while the United States saw an increase from 0.36 to 0.43 over the same period. By comparison, countries with more extensive welfare state arrangements, such as most Scandinavian countries, have experienced only minor changes and continue to record Gini-coefficients of between 0.24 and 0.26. On the other end of the spectrum, states such as Brazil, Mexico, and, increasingly, China report the highest income inequality, with coefficients of between 0.47 and 0.60.
Dworkin, Ronald. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
United Nations Development Program. 2005. Human Development Report 2005: International Cooperation at a Crossroads: Aid, Trade, and Security in an Unequal World. New York: UNDP. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2005/. See especially Table 15.
Williams, Andrew, and Matthew Clayton, eds. 2000. The Ideal of Equality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
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224. Equality (See also Feminism.)
- Augsburg, Peace of German princes determined state religion; Lutherans granted equal rights (1555). [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 185]
- Bakke decision “reverse discrimination” victim; entered medical school with Supreme Court’s help. [Am. Hist.: Facts (1978), 483]
- Barataria monarchy where all men are equal and the rulers share the palace chores. [Br. Opera: Gilbert and Sullivan The Gondoliers ]
- Dred Scott decision controversial ruling stating that Negroes were not entitled to “equal justice.” [Am. Hist.: Payton, 203]
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission U.S. government agency appointed to promote the cause of equal opportunity for all U.S. citizens. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
- Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) the proposed 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating that men and women must be treated equally by law. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
- Equality State nickname of Wyoming, first state to give women the right to vote. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 224]
- NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) vanguard of Negro fight for racial equality. [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 548–549]
- Nantes, Edict of granted Protestants same rights as Catholics in France (1598). [Fr. Hist.: EB, VII: 184]
- Nineteenth Amendment granted women right to vote (1920). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 409]
- We Shall Overcome anthem of civil rights movement, rallying song of black Americans. [Am. Pop. Cult.: Misc.]
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Equality is a key concept in both ethics and politics, one that influences personal and public self-understandings, and provides guidelines for relations between individuals and for state action. Insofar as scientific knowledge and technological change can either diminish or increase inequalities, and scientific research influences the understanding of what it means to be human, issues of equality exercise important ethical influences on the uses of science and technology. The ideal of equality also presents a special challenge within science and engineering, insofar as peers are supposed to be treated as equals at the same time that expertise makes claims to special influence.
It is an empirical given that human beings are in many respects unequal. They are of different shapes, sizes, and sex; different genetic endowments; and different abilities. From the earliest age, some children manifest gregariousness, others pugnacity, some pleasant dispositions, others dullness and apathy. Take almost any characteristic—health, longevity, strength, athletic prowess, sense of humor, ear for music, intelligence, social sensitivity, ability to deliberate or do abstract thinking, sense of responsibility, self-discipline, or hormonal endowment (for example, levels of testosterone and endorphins)—and there are major differences among humans. Yet it is one of the basic tenets of almost all contemporary moral and political theories that humans are in some fundamental respect equal, and that this truth should be reflected in economic, social, and political structures.
Historically this was not always the case. In Plato's Republic Socrates argues for equal opportunity for women and men among the guardians, but some of his interlocutors contest the possibility of this ideal. Aristotle rejects it outright, holding to strong differences between males and females, free men and slaves. "It is manifest that there are classes of people of whom some are freeman and others slaves by nature, for these slavery is an institution both expedient and just" (Politics
1.5.1255). Indeed, for many Greeks, Romans, and pre-modern cultures, the primary challenge was not to treat equals as equal, but to avoid treating unequals as equals.
In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions all humans are seen as possessing equal worth because they are created in a common relation to God. In Hinduism and Buddhism people have unequal worth based on their karmic status, that is, depending on how well they have carried out their dharma (duty), but they have equal opportunity to progress to higher modes of existence and eventually to attain nirvana.
With the Enlightenment equality became a political ideal. In the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776): "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The first article of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) likewise stipulates: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." As has been often noted, however, there is a tension between the ideals of liberty and equality. Inequality is not only produced by inheritance and traditional social orders; it is also produced anew by liberty, as people freely distinguish themselves from each other. Thus one is forced to inquire more precisely what kind of equality ought to be protected.
In relation to what should be "equalized" and the arguments that ground various egalitarian claims, one discovers both limited consensus and a plethora of competing ideas with regard to citizenship, law, opportunity, welfare, resources, opportunity, and capabilities. For instance, there is a measured consensus in support for equality in the areas of civil liberties, political participation, and opportunity. In the twentieth century, however, levels of social and welfare equality as a base for the exercise of individual liberty became contentious in the extreme. Moreover, together with debates between egalitarians about which version of egalitarianism is correct, there exists an even more fundamental argument between egalitarians and nonegalitarians, who question the moral significance of equality.
The first step in addressing such debates is to analyze more carefully the concept of equality. To begin, it is important to note that equality is sometimes interpreted as equity or fairness, but the two concepts are distinct. Whether or not and in what ways treating people as equals is equitable or fair is subject to argument.
Equality involves a triadic relationship. A is equal to B with respect to some property P. Except with abstract ideas, such as numbers, there is no such thing as equality per se. Two objects are always different in some respect—even two Ping-Pong balls are made up of different pieces of plastic and exist in different places. Two things A and B, if they are equal, are also equal with respect to something. Two trees are of equal height, two baseball players have equal batting averages, two workers have produced the same amount of widgets in the same time frame, and so forth. So descriptive equality always must answer the question, "Equal in what respect?"
When equality has a normative dimension, the relationship is quadratic: If A and B are equal with respect to the normative (or merit-ascribing) property P, then A and B deserve equal amounts of dessert D. Two persons A and B who are equal with respect to the law deserve equal treatment by the law. Two scientists or engineers who are equally competent professionals and performing equal services deserve equal compensation. Determining equality with respect to P in such cases is, of course, difficult.
Normative egalitarian theories fall into two types: formal and substantive. A formal theory states a formula or policy but includes no specific content. A substantive theory identifies a criterion or metric by which egalitarian policies are to be assessed.
Aristotle's notion that "injustice arises when equals are treated unequally and also when unequals are treated equally" (Nicomachean Ethics 5.3.23–24) is the most common statement of a formal normative theory. If two things are equal in some respect, then if one of them is treated one way based on that respect, it is wrong to treat the other differently based on that same respect. When applied to distributive justice, the formula of formal equality stipulates giving equals equal shares and unequals unequal shares based on some criterion left unspecified. Formal equality is simply the principle of consistency, and Aristotle, who articulated it, was substantively what in the early twenty-first century would be called an inegalitarian, because he defended class, racial, and sexual inequalities.
Substantive normative theories of equality either identify a criterion in the formula for equality in relation to which people should be treated equally or simply assume that all people should receive equal shares of some good(s). But because people are unequal in many respects, the first question concerns which respects are morally indefensible. One of the major controversies of the modern period has been the degree to which class, wealth, race, and sexual differences are legitimately recognized as bases for inequalities in various treatments.
A second question concerns whether the state should do anything to delimit inequality or promote equality. Socialists and liberals, for instance, tend to be interventionists, calling for government action to redistribute goods when a moral case can be made for mitigating the effects of inequality. Conservatives and libertarians tend to limit the governmental role, leaving such matters to individual or voluntary action.
Debating Substantive Equality
Returning to the first question, a few idealists, such as the radicals of the French Revolution, have called for the abolition of virtually all distinctions between persons. Graccus Babeuf's "Manifesto of the Equals" (1796) suggested even the elimination of the arts, because they reveal the difference between a Rembrandt or Michelangelo and everyone else. Sports and academic grades would have to be abolished for the same reason.
Most egalitarians nevertheless agree that not all inequalities are morally repugnant. Candidates for those sorts of inequalities that are morally wrong and thus subject to correction include primary goods, resources, economic benefits, power, prestige, class, welfare, satisfaction of desire, satisfaction of interest, need, and opportunity. Some egalitarians emphasize great differences in wealth as the most morally repugnant item and propose various redistribution policies such as the regressive income tax. Other egalitarians emphasize political power as the item to be equalized.
Certainly there is no doubt that the ideal of equality has inspired millions to protest undemocratic forms of government, monarchies, oligarchies, despotisms, and even republicanism. The sense that each individual is of equal worth has been the basis for rights claims from the English Civil War (1642–1648) to women's suffrage (granted in the United Kingdom, 1918; United States, 1920) and the civil rights movements in the United States (1960s) and South Africa (1980s). Who is not moved by the appeal of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough of Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentary Army, petitioning in 1647 for political equality?
I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under. (Putney debates, October 29, 1647)
But the ideal of equality has dangers too. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, in his visit to the United States in the 1830s, was amazed at Americans' passion for and preoccupation with equality. He saw in it both the promise of the future and a great danger. Its promise lay in the prospect of full citizenship, political participation, and economic equality. Its danger lay in the tendency to mediocrity and the envy of those who stood out from the crowd.
Contemporary egalitarians most commonly divide on whether resources or welfare is the primary good to be equally distributed. Resource egalitarians, such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Eric Rakowski, hold that in societies of abundance human beings are entitled to minimally equal shares of the resources or opportunities. Welfare egalitarians, such as Kai Nielsen, R. M. Hare, and Richard Norman, go further and maintain that in such societies people should receive equal welfare, interpreted in terms of fulfillment, outcomes, or preference satisfaction.
The strongest pro-equality consensus concerns equality of opportunity, of which there are two versions. The first is weak equal opportunity (sometimes called "formal equal opportunity"), which holds that offices should be open to talent. This was classically set forth by Plato and in postrevolutionary France by Napoleon Bonaparte, who chose officers not by class but by ability ("la carriere ouverte aux talents" [the tools to him that can handle them]) It is meritocratic equal opportunity, but does not address the advantages people have because of natural or family resources, thus leaving the matter of initial starting points untouched.
The second is strong equal opportunity (sometimes called "substantive equal opportunity"), which holds that individuals ought to have equal life chances to fulfill themselves or reach the same heights. It calls for compensation for those who had less fortune early in life to bring them to the level of those who had advantages. This kind of equal opportunity would support affirmative action programs and other compensatory policies. At the extreme, such equal opportunity would have to result in groups succeeding in obtaining coveted positions in proportion to their makeup in the population. Insofar as equal opportunity would be equivalent to equal outcomes, it might be called "superstrong equal opportunity."
One important theoretical issue in the debate over equality concerns whether or not equality of whatever substance is an intrinsic or an instrumental good. Thomas Nagel (1979), for instance, after making the distinction, affirms its intrinsic value for providing an independent reason to favor economic equality as a good in its own right.
Even more strongly, Christopher Jencks, in Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (1972), a report on U.S. education, maintains that "for ... a thoroughgoing egalitarian, inequality that derives from biology ought to be as repulsive as inequality that derives from early socialization" (p. 73). And Richard Watson (1977) argues that equality of resources is such a transcendent value, at least for many purposes, that if equal distribution of food were to result in no one getting enough to eat, this annihilation of the human race should nevertheless be chosen rather than an unequal distribution.
By contrast, it can be argued that equality is not a value in itself but only in relation to its potential effects. Utilitarians commonly argue that total happiness in a society is best maximized by means of equality. And although economists often argue that certain kinds of equality are in the interest of market efficiency, they also criticize efforts to achieve strong equality as themselves being too costly for the marginal utility they may introduce.
Science, Technology, and Equality
As science and technology have become increasingly important goods, inequalities in distribution within and between nations have become public issues. Indeed, scientific exchanges and communications technology, by making people more aware of disparities, intensify the discussion. Under appropriate circumstances, the same scientific and technological activities can also serve as means for the more effective promotion of equality. Ethical and political issues arise in relation to considerations of the extent to which this may be appropriate or feasible.
During the latter third of the twentieth century, as extensions of the civil rights and women's movements, equality within science and engineering became topics of intense debate. What was the cause of the underrepresentation of minorities and women in such sciences as physics or in engineering as a whole? To what extent was this the result of natural differences in interest or ability, or of inequality in access and opportunity?
During this same period scientific research, while not rejecting numerous well-recognized differences between individuals, tended to challenge if not minimize their importance. For instance, genetics points to minimal differences not only between races but also between the sexes, and even between human beings and some higher animals. What significance, if any, does this have for the egalitarian versus libertarian debate? On the one hand, it might well be argued that egalitarianism is so well established at the genetic level that nothing more need be done. On the other, it could also be argued that basic genetic equality is grounds for a more vigorous promotion of social equality.
Finally, increasing possibilities for the technological manipulation of human physiology open doors to radically new forms of the promotion of equality. Should science be used to alter individual genetic endowments through genetic modification? Even before such powers become generally available, it is already known that when parents have the power to choose the sex of their children, there exist strong tendencies in some cultures to choose males over females, thus creating a new kind of radical sexual equality. Moreover, the use of plastic surgery, performance-enhancing drugs, and eventually genetic engineering may be able to undermine inequalities among the gifted and the nongifted in many areas of physical appearance, athletic ability, and perhaps mental achievement. In such cases there may be dangers not only in the top-down or government-sponsored promotion of equality but even in the bottom-up initiatives of individuals practicing personal liberties. The decentralization of scientific and technological powers may alter the theory and practice of equality in unexpected ways.
Finally, ideals of equality pose challenges for relations between democratic practice and scientific or technical expertise. To what extent are scientists and engineers properly to be given special influence in decisions regarding such issues as the control of nuclear weapons, environmental pollution, or global climate change? Is technocracy an antiegalitarian danger in an economy that is dependent on scientific and engineering expertise? Such questions constitute important dimensions of any general reflection on science, technology, and ethics.
LOUIS P. POJMAN
SEE ALSO Justice.
Abernethy, George L., ed. (1959). The Idea of Equality. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press.
Arneson, Richard. (1989). "Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare." Philosophical Studies 56(1): 77–93.
Clayton, Matthew, and Andrew Williams, eds. (2002). The Ideal of Equality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cohen, Gerald A. (1989). "On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice." Ethics 99(4): 906–944.
Dworkin, Ronald. (2000). Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jencks, Christopher. (1972). Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. New York: Basic.
Nagel, Thomas. (1979). "Equality." In Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
O'Neill, Onora. (1977). "How Do We Know When Opportunities Are Equal?" In Feminism and Philosophy, ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin, Frederick A. Elliston, and Jane English. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
Pojman, Louis P., and Robert Westmoreland, eds. (1996). Equality: Selected Readings. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rae, Douglas; Douglas Yates; Jennifer Hochschild; et al. (1981). Equalities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rakowski, Eric. (1991). Equal Justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Roemer, John E. (1998). Equality of Opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sen, Amartya. (1992). Inequality Reexamined. New York: Russell Sage Foundation; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Temkin, Larry S. (1993). Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Walzer, Michael. (1983). Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic.
Watson, Richard. (1977). "World Hunger and Equality." In World Hunger and Moral Obligation, ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Westen, Peter. (1990). Speaking of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
"Equality." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/equality
"Equality." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. . Retrieved June 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/equality
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The idea of equality is not a single concept, and its complexity is evident throughout the revolutionary era and early Republic. For some, equality was the Christian idea of the individual's direct relationship to God and the Protestant's disdain for papal hierarchy. For others it was a political notion of equal representation, or of the individual's equal rights and liberty in law, both natural and civil. For still others, it meant a rough equality of condition thought to be efficacious to a republic. In general, Americans during the nation's early years held to combinations of some or all of these ideas with varying degrees of consistency. Assumptions about race and gender were persistent challenges. Even the most egalitarian thinkers found the implications of their principles discomfiting if not entirely unthinkable. To understand the meaning of equality at this time requires one to ask, of what kind and for whom?
During the years 1629 to 1641, New England Puritans, seeking refuge from persecution by mainstream Anglicans, sought to practice their beliefs in a "purified" worship. Yet they were loath to extend this freedom to non-Puritans. Although the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was to apply to all inhabitants residing within the colony, the General Court could determine who qualified for residence and expel or punish anyone who was deemed to have "exceeded the bounds of moderation." Equality was initially the equality of Puritan believers and those willing to conform to Puritan strictures.
Early Quakers (the Society of Friends) and German Pietists in the mid-Atlantic colonies in the years 1675 to 1725 were more tolerant of nonconforming neighbors in their midst. Pietists generally avoided politics, but Quakers who controlled the government of Pennsylvania for the first six decades of the colony accepted all denominations as expressions of the Holy Spirit. More individualistic in their understanding of differences, they affirmed William Penn's belief that the "Liberty of Conscience is every man's right, and he who is deprived of it is a slave in the midst of the greatest liberty." This led to a very liberal granting of equal legal rights to colonists, whether members of the Society of Friends or not.
A more peculiar development occurred in the southern colonies, settled largely from the south of England between 1642 and 1675. The region was known for its support of the Stuart monarchy during the Puritan Revolution; class position and personal status were accorded great importance in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Many who arrived aspired to attain the position of gentlemen landowners, with all of the deference accorded such a position in England. As John Randolph of Roanoke announced, "I am an aristocrat. I love liberty; I hate equality." That said, there was a kind of formal equality that evolved with slavery.
The paucity of labor proved an early inducement to the African slave trade on a more intensive level than elsewhere in America. This fact set in motion a unique dynamic between the larger landowners and the more middling and lower-class white colonists. By 1776 what had been the "equality of aristocrats" was transformed into the equality of white males. Basic legal rights were recognized, such as the right to sue and testify in court, the right to enter contracts, and the right to vote if one met minimal property requirements—all rights denied, not only to slaves, but to the few black freedmen who resided in Virginia. Consequently, vertical ties of allegiance from lower to upper classes were reinforced by a concept of equality within the race. That fact influenced the republican ideology that galvanized Virginia's resistance to England in the Revolution.
Equality, or the lack thereof, manifested itself in specific legal frameworks or religious practices. More problematic was the expression of equality in social life. Europeans, regardless of how egalitarian in political, philosophical, or religious matters, were steeped in medieval customs of hierarchy and status. Deference to one's betters was ingrained and, with the possible exception of the Quakers, was characteristic of most of the American colonists as well. Persons of wealth were accorded respect. Those with less were simply expected to give way when superiors were present, and were certainly never to presume familiarity. The Virginia gentry were held in awe by the middling to lower freemen, while slaves were always to show obeisance. In this context, it is often wondered how a revolutionary spirit and republican ideas of equal and natural rights ever came to the forefront of the American consciousness.
from englishmen to all men
The religious ideas of the mid-Atlantic and New England states reinforced the belief that equality before God ought to be affirmed in law. Lockean ideas of the Enlightenment formed an important part of the theological understanding of man's original and natural rights in the state of nature. Elisha Williams preached in 1744 in Boston that "all are born … naturally equal, i.e. with an equal right to their persons; so also with an equal right to their preservation; and therefore to such things as nature affords for their subsistence." What followed was a Lockean account of how reason and differences in ability produced the natural right to property and the necessity for limited republican government. With prosperity and population growth, these ideas resonated with Americans who took umbrage at any claim that disparaged their status in the empire.
Ironically, in the southern colonies it was precisely the concern with domestic issues of status that prompted similar philosophical and political developments. If gentlemen planters were reluctant to submerge their status within their own society, they were especially reluctant to assume a position of inferiority with respect to their British counterparts in the empire. When British policy changed with the need for revenue, these status-conscious southern leaders asked why they did not have the same rights as all Englishmen to consent to the taxation of their properties. Richard Bland of the Virginia House of Burgesses articulated this point early in 1766: "These Acts which imposed severer Restrictions upon the Trade of the Colonies than were imposed upon the Trade of England, deprived the Colonies … of the Privileges of English Subjects, and constituted an unnatural Difference between Men under the same Allegiance, born equally free, and entitled to the same civil Rights."
Whether originally conceived of as equality before God, the equality of all believers, or the equality of freeborn aristocrats, the concept of equality came to mean equal legal and political status with the inhabitants of the mother country. By the end of the eighteenth century, the colonists would no longer tolerate being the "subjects of subjects."
As resistance to British colonial policy intensified, the assertion of equal status was replaced by a more universal claim to their equal natural rights, or rights given by God or nature to all humanity. With the decision to declare for independence, Thomas Jefferson penned perhaps the most famous statement on equality along these lines in the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
equality of condition
Few sentences have been the source of so much debate. Is the statement simply about rights, or is it a basic assertion about the social conditions necessary for "happiness"? Does it describe, or does it also prescribe, the form equality ought to take in the new nation? Some writers have attempted to find a case for material equality, or equality of condition, during the Revolution and founding periods, and this has produced some interesting evidence.
For one, the culture of deference stemming from medieval views on status was irrevocably undermined. The urban artisan and working classes discarded much of their reserve with respect to their supposed social superiors. In cities like Boston and Philadelphia, often to the consternation of the higher sorts, artisans and day laborers were suffused with a spirit of republican equality that encouraged a more outspoken and participatory attitude. Yet the general sense was not so much in favor of material equality as a celebration of social freedom—the freedom to take pride in oneself regardless of occupation or wealth.
Others have detected a celebration of rough material equality considered to be especially conducive to a republic. Thus we find a statement by the minister Enos Hitchcock of Providence in 1793: "This soil is distributed in such portions amongst the inhabitants, and holden by such tenure, as afford the greatest security to the continuation of free government." In the absence of vast aristocratic fortunes, Americans need not fear domination by any particular group. Such fortunes, it was believed, gave means to bribe legislators and control government, but a rough equality of condition would avoid that unhappy prospect. Yet Hitchcock stopped short of prescribing anything other than equal laws. It was enough that in America
property is rendered secure, by the equality of law to all; and every man, being master of the fruits of his own labour, enjoys the right of property—no arbitrary imposition of taxes or of tythes, no lordly exactions of rents, chill the heart of industry, nor repress the cultivators exertions—no mercantile corporations, with exclusive rights, damp the ardent spirit of enterprise.
Jefferson's experience with the profound poverty evident in France caused him to question whether liberty and large disparities in property ownership are compatible. In 1785 Jefferson noted the poverty of the French lower classes and monopolization of land by the aristocracy—lands left "undisturbed only for the sake of game." He was "conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality" led him to conclude that legislators could not "invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind." By "natural affections," he believed it would be sufficient in most cases to eliminate laws that required all land to go to the eldest son. But "whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right." That was not the case in America, but in France, as he noted in the Autobiography, he saw "the monstrous abuses of power under which this people were ground to powder." Such circumstances might require redistribution. This was not advocating material equality per se. It merely meant lessening that inequality that left some near starvation. Thus in his Second Inaugural Address in 1805, Jefferson could still congratulate America for the "equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his fathers."
As with Jefferson and Hitchcock, most Americans of this period considered a rough material equality as desirable but not a main objective. The idea made sense only in relation to liberty. Individuals were to be free to pursue opportunities and reap the consequences. A rough equality of property was a happy accident of the equal application of law, but it was not to be a hindrance to the equal right to pursue opportunities and acquire the rewards of industry.
Freedom from artificial restrictions came to be the dominant conception of equality in economic matters after the Revolution, but profound social tensions were revealed as ideals conflicted with lived experience. Few embodied that tension more than Jefferson. The idea of equal freedom was rarely extended beyond white male adults. The most egregious inconsistency was the institution of slavery. Jefferson's conceptual struggle was indicative of a wider societal ambivalence.
equality for whom?
Jefferson's eloquence in defense of equal rights makes the fact of his ownership of slaves particularly jarring. The thinking of many of his contemporaries tended toward a justification of the "peculiar institution" by various theories of racial inequality. Rather than ignore the obvious conflict between the claim of equal rights and the existence of slavery, Jefferson wrestled with both, and this struggle has highlighted the inconsistencies in his life and thought. He would move for emancipation, but only if followed by colonization or deportation back to Africa. He would assert that the "unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people," but later contend that "no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves."
Equally problematic was the legal and political position of women. Accepted as equal intellectually, women were considered emotionally and physically unsuited to political life and public leadership. The Revolution was a political act, and even the most ardent of male liberal Patriots, or "Whigs" as they called themselves, could not conceive of women as having a political character or role. Yet during the Revolution women were depended on for providing food, shelter, and funds, and even for military intelligence. Equality was not so much the issue, but the role and status of women was steadily reconceived. The idea of republican motherhood was a first step in recognizing a political place for women in the family. Mothers were enjoined to impart republican values of independence, loyalty, thrift, and industry to their children.
Writing to John Adams on 31 March 1776, Abigail Adams famously asked him to "remember the ladies." She hoped he and the other representatives in Congress would "be more generous and favourable to [women] than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." Yet her call was only for an improvement in legal status or a lessening of inequality. "Regard us then," she continued, "as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreem [sic] Being make use of that power only for our happiness." John Adams responded with the observation that the move to independence had "loosened the bands of Government every where." Everywhere, people seemed to be agitating for their rights; Abigail's was but "the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented."
democracy in american civil society
John Adams's reply was prophetic for society as a whole. With independence and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, American civil society saw a whirlwind of political and social organizing for all sorts of causes.
The first political contests of the early Republic gave rise to the first two-party system, with the more democratically oriented Republicans under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison squaring off against the more conservative Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. These were great social events at the local level and stirred the political consciousness of a whole generation of Americans. Combined with a dynamic economy, the years following the heated election of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800 saw tremendous movements of people both geographically and across social strata. Individuals became far more mobile socially, some moving up the socioeconomic ladder, while the relative status of established ranks was diminished. That dynamism contributed to the further erosion of earlier deferential social norms. How Americans thought of equality was given new expression in American religious, economic, and political life.
The Second Great Awakening, beginning in the 1790s and lasting until the Civil War, was a period of increased religious enthusiasm and organization. Like the first Awakening in the 1740s, the trend favored popular charismatic and "low" church forms of devotion, with emphasis on revivals and evangelism. These movements drew from the older wells of Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist faiths but were less hierarchical. The spirit of renewal unleashed a powerful desire to reform not only the individual, but society. From these sources sprang the temperance movement, the antislavery movement, education reform, and the movements for women's suffrage. The ideals of the Revolution were reexamined with an eye toward perfecting American equality in faith, in law, and in representation. Although the roots of the reform societies can be found in this period, their most important influence would not be realized until after 1830.
For many born after 1776, consistency with the Declaration became paramount as a means of demonstrating their worthiness of their Revolutionary and republican inheritance. The period saw a visceral reaction against unearned status that severely crippled the Federalist Party in all but a few New England states, ushering in the so-called Era of Good Feelings (1820s), a time when the predominant party was Jefferson's Democratic Republicans. Even in business, entrepreneurs exulted in the equal rights of all individuals to pursue opportunities and for the common man to make good for himself and his family.
Equality in America was a complex blending of the equality of all believers, equality before God, equality in rights both natural and legal, and the lessening of the arbitrary distinctions of aristocracy. It was the working out of these ideals that eventually produced the great reform movements of the nineteenth century.
See alsoAdams, John; American Character and Identity; Antislavery; Class: Overview; Democratic Republicans; Democratization; Education: Overview; Election of 1800; Era of Good Feeling; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Federalist Party; Gender: Ideas of Womanhood; Hamilton, Alexander; Happiness; Jefferson, Thomas; Quakers; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Revivals and Revivalism; Temperance and Temperance Movement; Wealth Distribution; Women: Rights .
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Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Edited by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, distributed by Viking Press, 1984.
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"Equality." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/equality
"Equality." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Retrieved June 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/equality