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The Principle of Equality, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1093

Essay

The Principle of Equality appears to suggest an immediate contradiction: for the very fact that we need to assert that, for example, two given individuals are in fact equal proposes their initial difference. In other words, two or more phenomena, either on the social, political or even ontological level, are given to us that appear to be different at first glance: the principle of equality thereafter asserts their similarity. The contradiction here lies in the following: if there is an immediate difference that necessitates the very application of the principle of equality, does this not violate the robustness of this same principle? Such a view only holds if we consider that the initial perspective of a difference in between phenomena exhausts the relationship between the phenomena. That is to say that the principle of equality is founded on a very real discerned difference between phenomena, but when we are saying that a principle of equality exists, it is to say that this very real discerned difference is not the end all and be all of the phenomena in question. There is a more fundamental level that is their equality, which does not preclude the very real existence of difference that necessitates the principle of equality.

The principle of equality commonly appears in debates concerning ethics, and thus our social and political relations to each other. Whereas, as Barbara McKinnon notes, “the principle of equality can be formulated in various ways” (140), there is nevertheless a “general idea embodied in this principle” (140), which entails “that we should treat equals equally and unequals unequally.” (140) In other words, as Boatright writes, this principle “requires like things to be treated in like ways.” (304) Now, in light of the initial thesis of the paper, this “general idea” of the principle of equality seems to imply a contradiction: for in this regard the principle of equality also acknowledges the possible existence of “phenomena” that are unequal. Hence, returning to the horizon of ethics, it could be stated that in a society in which murder is forbidden and jaywalking is legal, to treat unequals unequally means that we should not offer the same ethical punishment to the murderer and the jaywalker. In this regard, the principle of equality itself always implies a potentiality for difference: the principle of equality does not state, from this viewpoint, that everything on an ethical level should be treated the same, but rather that is possible to distinguish cases in which equality is present and which inequality is present.

However, this position also coincides with the initial thesis that the principle of equality relates to a more fundamental equality, on the one hand, while also acknowledging a very real difference on the other hand: for the very precondition to asserting whether two phenomena are equal or not, or whether they should be treated as unequal requires that we are able to make this distinction. And this possibility to inscribe a distinction itself rests on the immediate difference between phenomena and a unity that then allows us to distinguish this difference in terms of equality.

Now this may seem to be a hopelessly obscure statement. However, when we consider Peter Singer’s work on the principle of equality in relation to ethics, and, in particular, the ethical rights of animals, such an obscurity is immediately dissipated. According to Singer, what is fundamental to the principle of equality is the following claim: it is “not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.” (Regan, 12) Accordingly, Singer argues for the very real necessity of difference as the precondition for the application of the principle of equality. Without such a precondition of difference, there is no need to even assert any such axiom as the principle of equality. The principle of equality only emerges in an ethical world, in which there exists a real perceived heterogeneous difference between phenomena, for example, from when considering a particular socio-political context, that there exists in Ancient Rome a very real difference between freemen of the patrician class and slaves without any possibility of human rights.

The twist in this argument, however, according to the thesis advanced by this paper is that these very real differences that are perceived, i.e., that are the reality of a particular socio-political situation, are in themselves ultimately illusory when we consider that this particular socio-political situation is particular. The principle of equality therefore functions against the ideological prescription of difference, that is, our immediate discerning of difference. The principle of equality does not discount the very real differences we are confronted with on a daily basis; the principle rather implores us, from an ethical standpoint, to understand that this perception does not exhaust the reality of possible relations that may exist. That is, the perception of difference does not by definition preclude the underlying equality of phenomena.

Now, even though Singer provides a way to thinking about this underlying equality, he nevertheless states that: “equality is a basic ethical principle, not an assertion of fact.” (21) According to this view, there exists very real differences that necessitate the principle of equality from an ethical perspective. However, my defense of the reality of such differences is here altered: it is not that such differences are the only reality, excluding equality and thus ethics to the world of illusion, but rather that the reality of such differences point to a different reality that is consistent with the principle of equality. Namely, although there is a very real perception of differences, such differences are merely contingent perceptions: this does not discount their reality, but it in no way precludes the principle of equality from being asserted on a more fundamental level.

The view that the principle of equality is founded on a contradiction, in so far as it is based upon the necessity of difference is here rejected. Difference is real, but it is at once contingent; by positing such difference as contingent realities, we understand all these contingent realities in an equal sense, thus evoking a principle of equality. The principle of equality is not merely an ethical imperative forced upon a real world of difference, but seeks an underlying world of equality underneath this very real world of difference.

Works Cited

Boatwright, John R. Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2007.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

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