What is Equality (and Equity)?

In recent years the difference between equality and equity have been discussed more and more. Equality is taken to be the idea that people have equal opportunity while equity is the idea that people (ought to) have equal outcomes. In the former, it means there should be no legal or political impediment to someone entering the market, whether that’s the buying and selling of goods and services or of one’s labor. The latter, equity, says that things like racial, sex/gender, and economic disparities need to be corrected through legal and political policies. But are these the only notions of equality?

Hanzi Freinacht says that there are six forms of equality, under the assumption that legal and political equalities are already met, then the inequalities that must be examined are as follows:

  1. Economic – the inequality often thought about, where there is a large distribution of wealth and income inequality; often measured using the Gini coefficient
  2. Social – having charisma and networks of friends, often conceptualized as social capital; can often be delineated along lines of race, sex, disability, and so on, as well as economic matters (i.e., social inequality is not completely independent of economic inequality); has two subsets
    • Social Status: determined by things like your job/career, prestige, and accomplishments
    • Charisma: how you express yourself during social interactions; observed in how popular someone is
  3. Physiological – differentials in things like nutrition, stress (cortisol levels), epigenetics, and immune system function as a result of other inequalities; conversely, the fact that things like a person’s height can influence their station in life; things like disabilities fall under this as well
  4. Emotional – our environment and the emotions of those around us influences our mood, and some people are born into bad environments, have abusive parents, or are otherwise surrounded by unhappy people; has to do with a person’s min/max/med of subjective states as discussed in the previous book; these emotions create feedback loops, where happier people feel a greater sense of reward for doing good things, making them happier, while less-happy people feel less reward (often times even punishment) and therefore become less happy
  5. Ecological – “includes such things as access to fresh air, clean water, lush vegetation, beautiful scenery, healthy and non-toxic food, clean living space – even sunlight.”
  6. Informational – people’s access to information, and who gets to produce and control the information, is not equally distributed; indeed, big corporations often have access to enormous amounts of information about millions of people by collecting their data

All of these, I think, could be grouped under social and economic inequalities (hence why people often talk of socioeconomic inequality), though I understand why it’s important to specifically note the other ones. For instance, things like ecological, informational, and some aspects of physiological inequality could be addressed through economic inequality. Emotional and other aspects of physiological inequality fall under social inequality.

Here I will give my own typology. Just like in my post about freedom, I will break equality down into the following six different types (without the assumption that legal and political equalities are already met):

  1. Metaphysical and Moral equality
  2. Physical equality
  3. Political and Legal equality
  4. Economic equality
  5. Social equality
  6. Moral equality

I’ll talk about each of these in turn.

Metaphysical and Moral Equality

Metaphysical equality can be thought of in a number of different ways. One is the religious stance. In the Abrahamic religions, people are thought to have a soul, and this soul has an equality insofar as it is equally deserving of punishment and God’s Grace. A more secular account would be something like the Kantian view that all people, on account of being rational animals, should always be treated as ends and never only as means. The descriptive part of the account in both cases is that, as souls or as rational animals, there is an intrinsic equality between any two people. The normative part says that this means that all people are equally deserving of punishment and forgiveness, or that all people ought to be treated as ends and never only as means.

There is, however, an inherent inequality between any two humans. Humans are not fungible: if someone loses a child, it’s not simply a matter of replacing that child, since both children are their own person. As such, humans might at most be said to be identical types, but they are not identical tokens.

This has the normative result that the deaths of one set of five people isn’t exactly the same as the deaths of a different set of five people. In many utilitarian calculi, humans are often thought of as fungible when looked at from an abstract hypothetical. But a different way of viewing such hypotheticals might be to always put oneself in the place of the persons who might be killed in a trolley problem, because all of the people involved in any such real world trolley problem (e.g., a business doing cost-benefit analysis about a dangerous product; a military officer sending people into battle) will be as unique and non-fungible as oneself. This can of course pose a number of new problems, such as too strong an application of the precautionary principle.

Yet, even if we say there is an intrinsic moral value to humans, most people are aware that some people are more morally valuable than others. There is differences in personal moral value – we value our friends and loved ones more than we do strangers on the other side of the planet (or even down the street), and therefore find it a greater moral imperative to help our friends and loved ones than it is to help strangers; and there is a more objective differential in people’s moral value – Gandhi, I think most people would agree, has greater moral value than Hitler. But even outside those extremes, people will mourn the loss of a celebrity more than the loss of a hermit, because the celebrity brings more value in the form of pleasure than does the hermit.

We are thus given a paradox, where we want to view all people as morally equal, yet we know full well that such a moral code would be untenable and likely immoral. If a person had the willingness, ability, and opportunity to kill Hitler before he started WWII, but did not do it, we would say that this was a moral shortcoming, even though most people would agree that killing people is morally wrong. Conversely, if someone had killed Gandhi early in his life, or even if someone merely wanted to kill Gandhi early in his life, we would likely view this as morally low.

Yet, at the same time, we also find something morally reprehensible about assigning some kind of objective moral value to people: person A has done X, Y, and Z and therefore has a moral rating of 73 while person B has done Q, R, and S and so has a moral rating of 89; as a result, you will be punished less harshly for killing person A than for killing person B. This sort of social credit system – or moral credit system – sounds disgusting on the face of it. We would not want to live in a society that does such a thing, yet we all do it subjectively.

Physical Equality

By physical I mean what most people would think of as physical, but also psychological, sociological, and intellectual.

The obvious one, however, is the physical insofar as things like physical strength and endurance. I think most people would find it uncontroversial that there is an innate physical inequality between any two randomly selected people. Even if we discount age, there are genetic components, wherein two people of the same age who undergo the exact same diet and exercise regimen are not going to end up with the same physical strengths and weaknesses. There are also things height, where some people are genetically predetermined to be taller or shorter than other people.

This is done on an individual basis (take any two random people out of the population and compare them on tests of physical strength), but there are also distributions based on things like age and sex, for instance.

Chart made by Reddit user grasshoppermouse based on CDC data from 2011-2012. The link to the data the user provides is no longer functional, so I can’t vouch for its veracity.
Muscle strength was established using measurement of the isokinetic strength of the knee extensors at peak force (isokinetic quadriceps strength [IQS]), in newtons. (Source)

Physical equality can also apply to things like what sorts of activities a person is genetically predisposed to prefer, what kinds of people they are genetically predisposed to associate with, and what kinds of mental tasks they can perform. These kinds of things are much more controversial, since the physical/mental dualist paradigm is still popular. This makes it so that people see such psychological, sociological, and intellectual aspects being divorced from genetics and hormones: a person can either just think themselves out of such preferences through shear willpower (e.g., the “just get over it” treatment for depression or addiction), or they can be trained, educated, or indoctrinated into different psychological, sociological, and intellectual states (often seen in the social constructionist/constructivism paradigm).

This is not to deny that social and cultural factors aren’t important. Who we are as people is obviously a mixture of many things – social, cultural, economic, biological, and the idiosyncrasies one one’s individual experiences – but my point is that we cannot discount the genetic and hormonal impact on our psychology and intelligence. Twin studies show that things like personality and spouse preferences have a genetic component. Career choice is shown to have differential distributions associated with sex, even in places with a “higher level of women’s empowerment.” Additionally, things like gender identity and political orientation have a biological component.

Where people make a mistake is in thinking we can get an ought from an is – that because someone belongs to a group that, on average, prefers a particular type of career, that this means that this person is constitutionally less qualified for a career outside that group’s typical preference. If there is an ought to be derived from this is, it should be that we ought not expect population distributions within particular careers to reflect population-wide demographics.

Correctives for these kinds of inequalities would also be undesirable, as is illustrated on Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron“.

Political and Legal Equality

Political equality can be broken down into what I will call Democratic Equality and Candidate Equality; legal equality can be broken down into Equality of Rights and Equality of Policy. I’ll discuss each in turn.

Democratic Equality: this is the equality of the vote and of representation. The equality of the vote is pretty straightforward: every person has one vote and that vote counts for the same whether you’re homeless and destitute or whether you’re a billionaire. This is often imperfectly implemented. For instance, a person with money can lobby the government to implement laws and regulations beneficial to themselves, which could be viewed as a way of increasing the weight of their vote. In the U.S. we also have things like the electoral college and states having equal numbers of senators despite having wildly different populations.

This then gets into equality of representation. Not only does this have to do with whether each person is equally represented in the legislature (or in civil society), but also in a person being counted among the population, which is why being counted in a census is important. This, too, has not always been perfectly applied, or even applied very well. The U.S. infamously counted black slaves as only 3/5 of a person, and then didn’t even give them that much of a vote.

Candidate Equality: this is the first place where we really come run into our split between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The former says that there should either be no barrier to entry for anyone to get involved in the government process (e.g., as a politician or a bureaucrat), or at least that the barriers ought to be equally and non-arbitrarily applied (e.g., a minimum age requirement to run for president). The latter, equality of outcome, says that the distribution of people in government positions ought to reflect population-wide demographics (e.g., the number of men and women should be equal; if 15% of the population is black, then (at least) 15% of bureaucrats and elected politicians ought to be black).

Equality of Rights: this is the formal and rationalized (in the Weberian sense) sort of equality before the law. It is the notion that every person has the exact same rights as any other person, regardless of race, sex, gender, orientation, religion, nationality, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, and so on. Whether you are a saint, a philanthropist, a greedy capitalist, a drug dealer, a drug addict, a homeless person, a working stiff, or whatever, you are still owed the same rights before the law as anyone else. Again, this is imperfectly implemented. For instance, rich people can afford better lawyers and to pay for long, drawn-out legal battles, while poorer people cannot, which can make legal systems work unevenly. There is also the fact that jurors are not unbiased, whether because of conscious or unconscious bigotries, or because they have a distorted way of weighing evidence (e.g., witness testimony is often weighted higher than things like DNA; the CSI effect; false confessions; and so on)

A subset of Equality of Rights is what I might call Policy Equality. This is the equal applicability of government policy. In other words, one might argue that there ought not be a policy that singles out a group of people for special treatment (whether “special” is taken to mean good or bad). Those who prefer equality of outcome often see Policy Equality as provisional at best, able to be superseded, skirted, or excepted in the name of some conceptualization of social justice (e.g., classifying some crimes as hate crimes, or allowing for affirmative action, or if there were reparations).

Economic Equality

Economic equality might also be generalized into what we might call Property Equality or Ownership Equality. Marx viewed it as ownership of the means of production and surplus value. But added to that would be things like income (in)equality. Most people are fairly familiar with this concept, and with the fact that income/property/ownership equality has never really been achieved (at least not in any society at the agricultural, industrial, or informational levels of development).

Economic inequality might not be viewed with so much animosity if it didn’t also bring inequalities in power. One could take the Marxist wage labor view of this in that the workers are dependent on the jobs, supplied by the capitalists, for their basic living needs. Classical liberalism and libertarianism would disagree on this account, and would argue instead that there isn’t a monopsony of employers (buyers of labor) and therefore the workers could always go work somewhere else (there is competition among employers to buy labor, which gives laborers a certain kind of power over the employers).

However, even libertarians would not deny that having money brings a certain amount of power. The libertarian would say, though, that this power comes from the ability to corrupt the government, which is why making the government less powerful would actually reduce the power that comes from having money. Others would disagree and say that simply having more money bestows a certain amount of power – if I could pay you $100 to do something and someone else can only pay you $10 to do that same thing, then you are going to do what I say. The libertarian would argue that this is a voluntary exchange, and would likely also argue that the person who can only pay $10 would eventually be able to find someone willing to work for that amount (once all the positions paying $100 have filled up), and the person’s willingness to work for it indicates that it is what the position is worth.

This gets to the difference between the Marxian idea of the labor theory of value vs. the Austrian School’s subjective theory of value (the capitalist theory of value). This might seem to be getting off track, but the theory of value, in an economic sense, is vitally important to understanding economic inequality, or at least the causes of economic inequality. The labor theory says that capitalists are extracting so-called surplus value from workers. In this view, an economically equal society would be one that goes by the Marxian dictum “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. This, of course, discounts things like risk and responsibility taken by entrepreneurs, and considers only physical labor to be the source of value (intellectual work, whether in academia or by the “capitalists” doesn’t add value because it doesn’t produce material products). It is also the case, as communist central planners discovered, that there is at least some level of subjectivity that goes into value: it doesn’t matter how many of product X you produce or how difficult it is to produce product X, if people don’t value product X then they aren’t going to buy product X for any price.

The subjective theory of value would say that economic inequalities result from differences in what people value: some people value money and prestige to a degree that they are willing to accept greater risks in entrepreneurship, which sometimes results in great financial success. Thus, the fact that people are different, in their willingness to accept risk and in their capabilities, means that economic inequality is an inescapable situation. A problem with this, obviously, is that there is a huge amount of luck involved in a person’s success – the luck of what economic situation one is born into (having rich or poor parents), but also the luck of different events one is confronted with during life (e.g., illness (of self or loved ones), accidents and natural disasters, and the poor decisions of others (such as one’s employer), and so on). There is also the argument that nobody succeeds 100% completely on their own, having benefited by things like already existing infrastructure, by those who educated them, and by others who help them (investors, workers, etc.).

The Marxist critique would also point out that, say a person with a billion dollars buys a pen from a small business store owner who has a few thousand dollars. The exchange, according to Marx, is unequal, because although the form of the exchange is the same, regardless of what each person owns, the content is not the same when each person has a differential amount of property. We could think of it this way: $1 means more to a person who has only $100 to their name than it does to a person with $10,000 to their name, and it means even less to the person with $1,000,000,000 to their name. Thus, we might say, the value of the pen being sold is greater for the store owner than for the billionaire – the store owner is losing something more valuable than the rich buyer is gaining, and therefore value is lost. The libertarian would likely respond that value is subjective and therefore the material conditions of the two people – the store owner and the rich buyer – is already taken into account when the store owner puts a selling price on the pen (or indeed even decides to sell pens in the first place); the price the store owner puts on the pen is exactly the value the store owner is willing to sell it for and the money the rich buyer pays is exactly the value at which the rich buyer values the pen.

Economic equality is the form of inequality for which likely the most ink has been spilled. There is much to say about it – indeed, books upon books have been written on the subject – and so I can’t cover every facet of it here. Yet, especially in more recent times, a new kind of equality has really come to the foreground, perhaps even surpassing economic equality in how much importance people feel that it has. That type of equality is, of course, Social Equality.

Social Equality

Like Hanzi said, some people are just more charismatic and/or more attractive then others. This generates an inequality in the way people are treated and how much their opinion is weighed against others. These kinds of things could perhaps also be under Physical Equality, since they are physical and intellectual traits that are influenced by genetics. I’m putting them here, however, because these are traits that don’t only dictate how the individual possessing these traits behave, but also greatly influences how those around them behave.

Social Equality also has to do with what is called social capital and cultural capital. These things are affected by traits like charisma and physical attractiveness, but they are also distributed along lines of political and economic classes, race and sex, and just pure luck (under what conditions a person was born, chance meetings (e.g., getting “discovered”), and so on). There are also structural and cultural issues at play (e.g., socioeconomic structuralism), which is a whole other rabbit hole I’m not going to go down here.

There are numerous other things involved in social (in)equality, such as what people value (e.g., pleasurable beliefs, fame, freedom) and how we view authority (does it come from money? God? The will of the people, as in democracy? Might-makes-right?). We could further complicate things by considering animal rights and abortion rights as well.

I would also put Hanzi’s ecological and informational equalities under here, as well as perhaps at least some aspects of his emotional and physiological equalities.

Concluding Remarks

I’m sure there are many other types of equality that we could think of, as well as many more additions to each of my types here. Others might combine or disambiguate some of these types of equality. Others might find even mentioning them morally reprehensible (particularly under physical equality). Others might say I haven’t emphasized things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries enough. But to all these people I say that this post is a propaedeutic or prolegomenon to further inquiry into ideas about equality.

In the above typology we can break each of them down into equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Instead of these labels, I might instead call it a priori equality and a posteriori equality, respectively. The former is a priori because it does not take empirical conditions into its calculation in the first analysis, or at least it views that as an ideal. This is the colorblind, meritocratic view that we are all equal a priori, only differentiating ourselves based on actions and behaviors – we’re all equal before the law, but once proven guilty of a crime you have forfeited your equal treatment before the law (i.e., you can be imprisoned while those not guilty of a crime cannot, which is by definition unequal treatment); we’re all equally able to apply for a job, but those who have taken actions to acquire more qualifications will be unequally awarded the job (one person gets the job, another doesn’t, which is by definition unequal).

The other kind I call a posteriori because it starts by first asking what the empirical facts are. Is the person a woman? Then they are owed one kind of treatment. Are they black? Then another. Are they a black woman? Then yet still another. This is the kind of program adopted by both rightwing nationalist types and by leftwing Woke types, although the latter do it in the name of equity or equality of outcome. It is therefore a matter of how unequal treatments are applied, given the empirical facts, that differentiates the rightwing and leftwing flavors of this a posteriori program – their projects are structurally the same but substantively different.

The upshot, though, is that a posteriori equality starts from facts and then decides what policies to implement in order to achieve some normative goal, whereas the a priori equality starts from an analytic premise around which policy is enacted and then adjudicates particular instances based on behaviors within that policy framework. The a priori version is therefore more rationalized in the Weberian sense, while the a posteriori version is more arbitrary; the a priori version is also more idealized insofar as it has a Weberian ideal type (the ideal liberal) from which real people are deviations, where the a posteriori focuses on differences as primary in a sort of Deleuzian sense.

I might also call a priori equality behaviorally conditioned equality while a posteriori equality is politically conditioned equality. The former is so named because it takes that we are all born equal a priori (perhaps due to natural rights), but then adjusts that equality based on behavior (e.g., through theories of criminality, meritocracy, and so on). The a posteriori equality, on the other hand, says that we are all born unequal a priori (due to social, economic, and structural factors) and must be made equal through policy.

The main point of this post is that there are many ways to think about equality and inequality. Addressing one type is likely to lead to greater inequalities in another type. It is therefore important to know (A) which ones are most important to us, (B) which ones still need to be addressed, and (C) how addressing them will affect the other types of equality.