TL:DR: There are two kinds of equality: Equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome offers the same results for all. Equality of opportunity offers the same potential for success for all. I show that neither of these positions are necessarily positive, although they can be in specific circumstances. When equity is the primary concern, one must be skeptical of what kind of practices yield equitable outcomes.
To read my previous article on this subject click here.
Equality is perfectly identical treatment. In modern discourse equality can be further broken down into “equality of outcome” and “equality of opportunity”. Equality of outcome implies that everyone ends up with the same results. Equality of opportunity implies that everyone has the same starting point, and so all individuals have the ability to achieve equal outcomes if they behave in the same way. Due to differences in the choices of individuals, however, different outcomes will be reached.
A common example of this dichotomy is income. In a society where perfect equality of outcome was guaranteed, all individuals would make exactly the same amount of money. Within a society with perfect equality of opportunity, however, all individuals would be perfectly capable of making equal incomes. However, some people may, for instance, choose to work more hours than others. If these individuals work on an hourly basis, then this will immediately mean that some individuals are making more than others. Other things that might affect income would be the chosen career field and one’s attention to detail. All individuals would face equal barriers to entering any field, and any two individuals who perform nearly identical actions will see nearly identical results, but we will see unequal outcomes depending upon what individuals choose to do.
Oftentimes those who analyze these issues end up either squarely on either the side of equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Indeed, I’m sure that there are those who read my article on equality and equity and assumed that I was outlining the difference between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. This is not true, however. What is fair can be either forms of equality, or it can be neither. The reality of individual situations and characteristics means that often equality of opportunity is impossible. The enforcement of equality of outcome is an even greater denial of individuality and the importance of individual action.
As an example of why equality of opportunity is usually untenable, say that someone is born in South Korea. Now assume that at a relatively young age they develop a strong affinity for Spanish culture. For whatever reason they love everything about Spain and want to go there. Indeed, after they visit they decide to live there. Within this example the individual would probably be stuck with a lifelong accent and depending upon whether they had valuable skills or not, they might struggle to find a job while still settling down and becoming fluent in the language. The person is likely, based on their appearance alone, to be forever mistaken as a tourist when travelling outside their community. In order to enforce equality of opportunity on this level, either the whole world would need to forgo language and culture, or somehow all children would need to be raised learning all languages and cultures.
While the above is a rather specific example that probably plagues a rather small percentage of the population, it does give a very clear cut case where equality of opportunity would lead to negative outcomes for the overwhelming majority of people. To reach a world of even highly significant equality of opportunity that excludes extremely strange examples like the one above, parents would need to follow a highly strict regiment of parenting, all schools would need to be nearly identical, and parents would have to be sure not to encourage their children too much or too little in any area. All children would have to be raised in a way that was very average. Location would be a consistent problem, both because affluent children making connections with one another would be problematic, and because physical environment may well influence things like exercise and one’s preferences for where to live in future. Clearly all cultures and non-uniform values would need to be abandoned.
Opponents of equality of outcome often point out the tyrannical steps that would be needed to achieve such a state, but it is clear that achieving equality of opportunity might even be more tyrannical. Once again, this might seem to be an unrealistically stringent standard to which to hold equality of opportunity, yet this shows both that there are other values that one must account for beyond equality, and that beyond a certain point the appeal of equality of opportunity itself becomes rather dubious.
The lunacy of complete equality of outcome is even more obvious. I shall here reference Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel “The Siren’s of Titan”. Within that book most of the earth’s population join “The Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”. Among the central teachings of the church is that we are all accidents within this universe. We are no more responsible for our success or failure than a snowflake is responsible for where it lands. As a result, it is the greatest virtue within the society to equalize the experiences of all. The attractive dress very poorly to make themselves less appealing. All but the most crippled wear chains and weights to impede their ease of movement. Virile men try to counter this by marrying women completely uninterested in sex. All advantages in this world were curbed to the point where everyone was approximately equal to everyone else, and all experiences were equally bland and drab.
This too, might seem like an absurd conclusion, but I would say that it certainly is not when showing why equality of outcome cannot be considered categorically good. The ease of one’s movement, the comfort of being attractive, and the sharing of intimacy are extre are extreme advantages in life that dramatically increase one’s comfort.. If equality of outcome is necessarily good, then these experiences would also need to be equalized. As it is easier to bring those in a “better” condition down than those in a “worse” condition up, the conclusion is clear.
Now of course I doubt that anyone would want either of these eventualities for society, nor do I believe anyone would seriously propose them. Therefore, while equality of opportunity, and occasionally equality of outcome are equitable in certain situations, many times what is equitable in the real world is highly unequal in both respects. What is fair is likely going to be highly dependent upon the situation. It is entirely appropriate to discuss “levels” of equality of opportunity and outcome in certain contexts (such as income), but in most cases perfect equality of either is not fair and other values must be considered.
I will conclude here by listing a number of things to be aware of in discussing what is equitable.
The first consideration is that we must always remember that equality is not necessarily equitable. This has been shown in this and the previous article.
The second consideration is that there are rarely simple top down institutional rules that will lead to high levels of equity. Indeed, the more “institutionalized” an issue becomes, the more collectivistic it becomes. More and more individual conditions are erased and replaced by an approximation. This relates closely to the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. A good lawyer can often exploit loopholes in the way that a law is written which gets around the effect it was intended to have. Similarly, any inflexible specific policy is likely to have people who “slip through the cracks” and are either neglected or even harmed by the policy.
Thirdly, one must not blindly accept that something intended to be equitable is necessarily equitable. History is full of horrible things done in the name of what is “right”. One must analyze policy proposals themselves in order to determine if they will achieve the end they claim to bring about.
Finally, we must defend against the notion that just because a situation is unequitable that it would be equitable to intervene and “fix” the situation. Whether an intervention is equitable depends, of course, upon the nature of the intervention. In a society with any degree of individual rights, people are allowed to be nasty to one another. A society where moral behavior is regulated by the state beyond a very basic degree has, at best, a constant threat of totalitarianism. Social pressure can, of course, be applied by individuals to encourage equitable behavior, but that too can have problems of excess guilt and conformity.
As a society, questions of fairness and right conduct are extremely important. Today there are many fervently trying to make the world a “better” place. I believe many would benefit from more discussion and introspection of what is, in fact, equitable. More importantly, before more members of our society are able to grasp the differences between equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, and equity, I believe that much of this activism will be significantly misguided.