Miscellany: Equality, equity, inalienable rights

…As I have understood these terms, equality is associated with the just dessert of equal opportunity. But as many people have pointed out, there are a thousand sources of difficulty in interpreting and implementing this notion. Not the least of these difficulties is that if everyone is given equal opportunity it will result in colossal disparities between people because everyone has different talents. Those whose talents correlate productively with the society in which they find themselves will be massively successful in comparison to those whose talents do not. Beethoven would almost certainly be medicated and probably sent to an insane asylum today, for instance, as would many of the great thinkers, artists, and philosophers of history.

As a result of the difficulties in respect to interpreting and implementing the principle of equality, the concept of equity is brought in. This ordinarily is intended to shift emphasis from opportunity to outcome. Thus, disparity in outcome is seen as evidence of unfairness (recall the discussions and lectures of the last couple weeks in respect to evidence and theory). The obvious danger in respect to emphasizing equity, or equality of outcome, is that we create a situation that incentivizes a race to the bottom as everyone gravitates toward occupying the lowest common denominator of any given hierarchy of measurement, knowing that their reward will be the same and their compensation the greater. At the same time, equity is often rightfully invoked in an attempt to mitigate the polar opposite danger that total disregard for outcomes threatens. Namely, it will tend to exponentially magnify disparities amongst people.

We can imagine Lady Justice with the balance in her hand: equality means “let the scales do their job while she holds them with a steady hand,” equity means “she puts her finger on the scales to ensure an equal outcome.” Equity may initially seem much fairer and more compassionate and I think this is partly true, but partly false at the same time because it ends up conferring arbitrary amounts of power on a select group of people who are in charge of determining what is fair in each case because equal outcomes are distinctly unfair when two people do distinctly different things. It is a case of the quis custodiet ipsos custodes? or the “who guards the guards?” principle.


I think you broached a very interesting and perhaps impossible question about bigotry. Here is what I have in mind. Can it be true at the same time that (1) every creed and worldview is true and that (2) the concrete tenets of those various creeds are often entirely at odds with, and sometimes even contradictory of one another? These propositions seem to be mutually exclusive. It seems that, if we truly value truth, we must, by the same token, admit that it is possible to be wrong. This admission, of course, implies that not every creed or worldview is true of necessity. It could not be concluded in the abstract. Instead, it would have to be determined “empirically” so to speak, whether or to what degree a given view is true. Do you see the difficulty I am getting at here?


I agree that equality and equity are terms that are often used but rarely used in a way that does not lead to confusion in what is being said. I was surprised by your example about cars because, in the way that I have ordinarily encountered these terms in relation to one another, talking about equity instead of equality is meant to draw the emphasis away from opportunity and towards outcome. In your example, however, you associated equity with opportunity and not outcome.


Thank you for your reflection. I appreciate your views on this and, to speak personally, I entirely agree with you. And, as may be obvious, I am far more concerned about the basic philosophical points that you have brought up than I am about many of the political issues du jour because I think that as long as the cornerstones remain, the structure can always be renovated.


I think there is a sort of “blind-sight” amongst many modern intellectuals and it leads to them to deny, in principle what they, so far, affirm in practice. I am thinking of things like basic regard for human dignity beyond being a mere biological vessel to propagate genetic material to the next generation. The fundamental postulate that the universe is ordered in a way that is intelligible to our reason is another example. The latter is, of course, the basis of science as we know it and seems to be unthinkable without assuming an intelligent source that was the common origin of both of them. It is a really crazy and self-contradictory notion to assume that everything about us is the result of physics and natural selection. If it were true, it would mean that saying “everything about us is the result of physics and natural selection” was also a result of physics and natural selection and therefore it did not have any meaning independent of its utility in this respect. But, mirabile dictu, this does not seem to occur to many intellectuals today.

That being said, I feel obliged to give the devil his due in this case and ask you to address the obvious contradiction in affirming the proposition that “all men are created equal” while refusing many rights to women, races other than those which the Founders identified as acceptable, and anyone altogether who did not own property. What is going on when someone says that a divine Creator endowed human beings with inalienable rights and dignity and at the same time, he does not see a contradiction in limiting this recognition to a very limited class of persons?


I appreciate the difficulty that you observed in evaluating the truth of a moral precept when people appear to disagree about it. That being said, can some people simply be wrong? You defined “self-evident” as something over which everyone agrees. And yet, this seems to lead to a situation that ignores obvious differences in intelligence and insight amongst people. It is not necessary to think about anyone other than ourselves. You and I can both recall our “younger selves” before we saw the Elephant. What is self-evident to us today was invisible to us yesterday. Do you see what I am getting at? You seem to regard moral truths as questions of consensus but do you think they could, at least sometimes, be a question of perception or insight?


Thank you for submitting your reflection. I appreciated your perspective and your words were really shone through by your warmth of heart. I also appreciate your acknowledgement that I have probably heard a great deal from people about their views on last week’s meeting. I think K. has been given the opportunity to critically reflect on the effect that her approach had and I hope others will take a similar opportunity to critically reflect on their reactions. Ultimately we are all the better for situations like this, even when they are not exactly comfortable because they help us co-exist and respect one another’s differences. There is a very beautiful image from the Buddhist tradition of Bhaiṣajyaguru or “Medicine Buddha.” The being of Buddha is not, foremost, to be thought of as other than us, but rather a quality of consciousness that we can enter. In the case of Medicine Buddha, we are seeing with this insight when we see all experiences as medicine that help us heal our relationship to our experience. That’s what I try to keep in mind in situations that I find to be uncongenial. 


I agree that it is a very difficult question to address because there appears to be at once a great deal of evidence against the proposition that “all men are created equal” and also a great deal for it. I think you did a better job noting the counterevidence than the evidence to the claim. The reason I say this is because to promulgate a law that prohibits discrimination is only evidence for the proposition in question if you can show that it is the only possible cause that such a law would be promulgated. But I could think of other reasons to promulgate a law like this. Suppose, hypothetically, that some economists performed a study that suggested that it benefits the bottom line not to exclude able bodied members from the workforce. Do you see what I mean here? This is a good illustration of logical form. If A, then B. If you affirm B, however, that doesn’t necessarily entail A.


Thank you for presenting these issues before us. It seems that you have touched on at least three topics: nature and nurture, cognitive psychology, and birth order. As I have suggested in a number of lectures, everything is related in principle so it is unavoidable that any thorough inquiry into one thing would involve an inquiry into many other things as well. At the same time, I am challenged to respond to your presentation comprehensively instead of piecemeal. I will try, and please tell me if I have taken it in a direction other than what you had in mind. 

If we affirm that both nature and nurture influence our sense-making process, and that birth order is among the primary instances of the latter kind of influence, it still presents a mystery that I have often pondered on. Namely, why does a given scenario affect two people in different ways, and even affect the same person differently at different times? At first we might say “factors of nurture like birth order.” But this is begging the question because “factors of nurture” is just what is at stake when talking about “given scenarios.” So then we might say “factors of nature.” But then why should the same person be affected differently, since nature, by definition, would remain the same for her? I think the answer is obviously that both nature and nurture designate abstractions from what is, in reality, a unity. In other words, our selves are both distinct from and inseparable from everything that we experience and even things that we do not like the conditions of our birth. Sometimes if I think very intensively about this I have an insight into what the concept of karma must entail. I wonder if folks will have anything to add on this question.

I also look forward to a discussion about birth order and any insights or observations that may come of it. I am actually one of three brothers so it is a very meaningful question for me.


Thank you for submitting your reflection and for sharing your thoughts about K. You might be right about everything you say but I hope you can use your own experience and emotional reaction as an opportunity to practice and develop critical thinking, which is the purpose of this course. I know it is an “inconvenient truth” but if we can only think critically when we are very comfortable with the situation we are thinking about, it won’t do very much good in real life. So I encourage you to use this situation as “grist for the mill,” just as I have encouraged K. to critically reflect on the situation from her own side. I hope you can see what I am getting at here and please reach out if you have any questions or difficulties with this aside from the obvious and ineluctable difficulty of attempting to integrate standpoints other than the ones that we already de facto inhabit.


I found a number of points you made very interesting. You observed that we are all biologically conceived in the same way. Do you mean to say that this fact entails that each person deserves to be awarded a certain quality of life? If so, how do we account for the fact that there appear to be such great discrepancies in the quality of life that people in fact appear to enjoy? I also wonder about how to proceed from the fact that we are able or allowed to endow one another with these rights to actually doing it. Perhaps you would be willing to share your thoughts on this.


I am left wondering about something that you wrote. After noting the difficulty with affirming that “all men are created equal,” you seemed to imply that many people still seem to regard it as true despite that they say the do not believe it. It seems we have an inner sense for moral truth and people appeal to it in order to recognize fairness or unfairness when they see it. Otherwise how would we know? Do you think this is the way that it is self-evident? What I mean is that we don’t seek it but rather seek other things like fairness by/through/with it.


The crux of the prompt and of our discussion the other night was just what it implies if people today do not accept the premises of this founding document. You observed that you do not believe it is a self-evident moral truth that all men are created equal so I take it that at least some people do not. A premise like this is like a pillar on which the country’s ideals, and in turn the structure of our society, stands. So to reject the premise means that the ideals no longer have support from it. Perhaps another basis for support can be provided but I think it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of a community that does not share common axioms like this. Do you see the difficulty I am pointing to? I think that when you said “our modern society reflects this,” it is evidence for my suggestion that many citizens of the United States do not share this common axiom. I think that it is a miracle that the United States has endured the trials that it has until now and I think we are putting our faith in another miracle if we imagine the structure of our society can remain standing with the disintegration of one of its cornerstones. I will be curious to hear your thoughts on this.


I would like to hear more about a particular point. The Declaration of Independence establishes that “all men are created equal” by God as the basis for equal moral recognition among men (and women). This is really the moral pith of the question: do the ways that you observed in which people are created equal entail concrete dispositions and behaviors we should adopt towards our fellows? Or is it a mere fact that people are created equal but then we can just go around relating with one another as we see fit?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Charles says:

    Good writing. These are ideas that I ponder. Complex.

    Liked by 1 person

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