The meaning of equality, January 25, 1967
The meaning of equality
By Manuel L. Quezon, Jr.
January 25, 1967
FOR some reason or other, since the French Revolution of 1789 set up as the battlecry of democracy the three words “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” it is mainly the second word that has received attention. Those who live in a democratic country take it for granted that they already enjoy liberty; fraternity is not even thought of, although, as a prominent philosopher has pointed out, it is the spirit of democracy. There remains equality, desired, pursued, yet never attained because never understood.
This being January, and therefore the anniversary of the first appearance in 1835 of the first part of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work on Democracy in America, allow me to start this discussion of equality with two quotations from him, indicating the effects of a wrong idea of equality.
The first one is: “One should not disguise the fact that democratic institutions develop to a very high degree the sentiment of envy in the human heart. It is not at all because they offer everyone the means of becoming equal to the rest, but because those means unceasingly fail those who use them. Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it completely. That complete equality slips from the hands of the people at the moment when they think to grasp it, and flies, in the words of Pascal, with an eternal flight; the people warm to the pursuit of that good all the more precious in that it is so near due to being known, yet so far due to never being tasted …Whatever surpasses the people for whatever reason at once seems an obstacle to their desires, and there is no form of superiority however legitimate whose sight does not tire their eyes.”
Our second quotation is equally depressing: “Poverty as well as misfortune are the two best guarantees of equality known to men.”
Democracy being as it is so obsessed with the notion of equality, the envious quality of democracy has not changed in our day, at least certainly not in our country. Witness the reference to the process of democratization as a process of leveling, i.e., bringing down to a common level; witness further the frequent reference to higher income taxes as a system of “soaking the rich.”
Democracy being de facto so obsessed with the notion of equality, and the notion being, again de facto, so destructive of individual advancement since absolute equality is attainable only on the lowest, most unhappy level, it will do us good to think of equality and what we should mean and intend by it, lest our efforts be directed only to an equality of poverty, misery, ignorance and vulgarity.
The word “equality” has, unless I am mistaken, a mathematical origin. Ultimately, of course, it means identity, sameness. When we say that one quantity equals another, we mean that one quantity is the same as another or is identical to another. But while we can speak of one quantity being the same as another, we cannot speak of one thing being the same as another, least of all of one person being the same as another.
One can speak of one abstraction being the same as another, not of one concrete reality as being the same as another. Thus, we can speak of one liter of gasoline being the same as another: the notion, and the theoretical quantity of one liter is the same as another liter; in the world of reality, any physicist will admit that any given liter of gasoline is a little bit more or a little bit less than another one, be the difference infinitesimal.
This equality, then, exists in the mind. Once it is found in the world outside the mind, it is no longer perfect equality, sameness, identity. This is in the case of inanimate objects, which are so very much under our control, malleable, measurable, changeable at our will. What happens when we come to the world of human beings, since that is the world we are dealing with when we speak of equality in a democracy?
Human beings are such complex creatures –that is what makes them so interesting– that we get into serious trouble when we begin to speak of equality, because all to often in the back of our minds what we really have is the mathematical notion of equality.
This confusion is not helped one bit by the contemporary worship of science, which is in the last analysis the application of mathematics to the external world. Worse, what we worship is not so much science as its misrepresentation as given out by the popularizers of science, for science has long since realized that the external world admits of no exactitudes, a fact that Plato realized two millennia and a half ago.
Even worse, when we seek to apply mathematical equality to human beings, we forget that the world of mathematics admits of proportional equality, what is sometimes called geometrical equality as opposed to arithmetical equality, for at least proportional or geometrical equality can be applied to human beings, whereas arithmetical equality cannot.
One can only be equal to one, two to two, and three to three, whereas every equilateral triangle is equal to every other equilateral triangle, regardless of size, and five is to 10 as six is to 12, although five is less than six and 10 is less than 12.
Equality then is a very confusing word when we want to apply it to human beings. That is because as we remarked, human beings are such complex creatures. Perhaps it would help clear up the confusion if we were to remember that we may be using the word in the sense of “same,Ã” meaning arithmetical equality, when we really should be using it in the sense of “alike.” It will above all help avoid confusion if we remember what we are dealing with.
When we speak of human equality, we can be referring to any number of things. In the first place, we should mean that people are equal by reason of their human nature. That is, they are equal in that they are equally human beings. This is one case in which one can hardly speak of more or less. Either one is a human being or one is not. Either one belongs to that race of creatures, which we call men or one does not. What constitutes a human being is present in each human being, in concrete form. The basic dignity found in a human being is found in every human being, in a particular, concrete form. Thus every person, whether he or she lays claim to it or not, enjoys the rights of a human being.
However, as we pointed out, human nature is found in human beings in concrete form, not in universal form. Here the trouble and confusion begin. Human beings exist, not as simple human beings, but as Juan, Pedro, Jose, Maria, Ana, etc. In other words, human nature does not walk around on the streets, it is Juan and Maria who, possessing human nature, go around on the streets. And Juan and Maria, being creatures of the world, differ from human beings, in all things except their humanity. Here equality ends.
At any stage of development, human beings differ from each other. From the moment when a human ovum is fertilized and thus starts its career as a human being, one individual differs from every other. And all through its development it differs from other humans until it dies. How does a man differ from other men all through life?
First of all, men are endowed with differing physical characteristics. Before the age of the exact sciences, people already were aware that no two human beings are exactly alike physically, although they may have thought that identical twins were an exception. Various scientific discoveries have shown that people really do differ physically. Fingerprints, once the only accepted form of identification because they were different in every individual, are now being added to or replaced by other physical characteristics such as voice, etc., which differ within scientifically measurable limits, and which stamp each man and woman as distinguishable from the rest.
Nature itself makes one human being different from another. There has been talk recently about the possible future ability of scientists to control heredity. Although there does seem to have been talk as yet of scientists being able to make one human being exactly like another, and I doubt if scientists would be interested in doing such a thing, I suppose the theoretical possibility will exist, insofar as physical and psychological characteristics are concerned. Identical twins cause a feeling of curiosity and pleasure –I wonder if human beings deliberately alike in everything physical would not rather cause a chill?
We have pointed out that people differ from other people physically. They look different, and are. But they differ even more in their intelligence and their minds. The various tests worked out to measure intelligence and aptitudes are universally admitted to give only approximations. This does not speak against the value of the tests. It only means that we are trying to use a standard of some sort to give us as accurate an idea as possible of areas where measurements of an exact kind are simply out of the question.
I do not know whether there is any claim made that human beings are born equally intelligent potentially and develop differently due to differing environments and experiences. If such a claim has been made, I do not know how it would be proved. In any case, by the time any exercise of intelligence is possible, we already find an infinite gradation of levels of intelligence. And as a person’s intelligence is affected by environment and experiences differently, so his next experience may elicit a different kind of response from his next experience or from the next change in his environment. What I am trying to point out is that what is inside of us, our intelligence, our physical abilities, our looks, etc., differ all the way through life. No equality there. Neither nature nor life endows us equally.
Even more important, life does not endow us equally. The ancient philosophers used to say that the human mind is like a clean tablet on which nothing has been written, referring this statement to the moment of birth. Just how literally true this is may very well be debated, but if we take the word mind to mean the entire intellectual and psychological make-up of man, modern psychology is pretty well agreed.
According to the latter, the writing on the clean tablet starts from the very beginning, and the ones who do most of the writing, at any rate the most important writing, are the parents. Parents, being human beings themselves, differ widely, and the result is that the influences wielded on children are infinite in their variety, with also infinite results. The influence of the members of the family, apart from the parents themselves, is also tremendous. The general, social, economic, and educational backgrounds play their tremendous role, and these also vary unceasingly. Those who undergo all these multifarious influences cannot help but be unequal.
Last but not least, we shall mention the inequality of achievement of individuals. We can use the word achievement in the sense of something great that has been done, and in this sense some people have no achievements. Not everyone has made a name for himself in some particular field. But in the wider sense of doing things, getting things done, even on an externally small and in significant scale, people do have achievements and those achievements differ very widely. One is an academic success, a social failure, and possibly an economic nonentity. Another may be an academic failure, a social success, and an economic mediocrity. Again, all along the line, inequality.
Under such conditions of human life, the kind of equality that is all too often unconsciously desired, a leveling of all, an artificial keeping of all at the same level, would be the rankest injustice possible. It is by the nature of things impossible to bring all up to the same high level. Thus the only way to achieve equality is on the level of the least common denominator. The refusal to admit superiority in some and inferiority in others would very likely be diminished if we were to use another terminology and merely say that some are more able than others, some have had better sense than others in using the possibilities presented to them.
We would be more sensible about the whole matter if we would realize that there is neither credit nor blame attached to what we start with, that is, what we are neither to take credit nor to be blamed for what we start with, whether it be much or little. What we do with ourselves and what we help others, to accomplish it are what really count. In the concrete, what should this mean?
We pointed out at the very beginning that we all have basic human rights, since we al have human nature. This means unavoidably that we all have the right to human existence. No one has the right to deny anyone a truly human life. More than that, we have to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves. Whatever the situation, human being should never be in a condition of living like a brute animal. So much for all human beings, as a matter of strict necessity due to their human nature.
But beyond that, the equality for which we should all struggle is equality of opportunity and equality before the law. This is the only kind of equality which is a truly human equality. It is the kind of equality which, far from pulling down, pushes people upward toward the truly human goal of fulfillment.
Equal opportunity and equal protection from the laws can alone make it possible for human beings to be truly equal in the only way in which they can be, which is in the sense that they will be able to develop their potentialities and develop their personalities to the fullest extent possible, so that they can truly say that human nature as found in those particular human beings has been developed to its maximum.
As long as society does not make this possible, or at the very least strive in this direction with all its might, something is seriously amiss.
The envy which de Tocqueville pointed out as a danger and a menace to the democratic society, the degrading desire to drag people down instead of climbing upward, will be a tremendous temptation for the less fortunate, even though not quite unfortunate, as long as people can be aware of it and its dangers.