On Equality. Or, Why I am a Liberal
A Rationalist’s Case for Equality. Or, Why I am a Liberal.
Equality is artificial. Inequality is natural. This much is a truism.
Those who doubt it are willfully blind. It is all around us. No two entities are ever equal. This is glaringly obvious in the biological world. Not even the homozygotes or the two new individuals derived from the division of a cell are equal. I am not a physicist, but I suspect even subatomic particles would someday be found to have unique characteristics, making the subatomic quantum sphere a sphere of unequals too.
So the concept of equality has its origin in the human mind — an artificial construct. It is uniquely a cognitive construct.
I believe, at its roots, the concept arises from our minds being programmed for three things.
Our minds are hardwired, programmed by evolution:
- To see each thing as a discrete entity and the universe as an aggregation of such entities. The universe itself is seen as a discrete entity. We are natural set theorists.
- To see everything in comparison with something else. We are cognitive relativists. That is how we get our bearings in the physical world; that is how we relate to entities in our minds. We cannot understand things without knowing the context in which they are placed.
- To appreciate and prefer symmetry, which has come about to help us identify better foods and better mates.
I believe our yearning for equality stems from these roots.
Then the discreteness, the relativity, and the symmetry are the cognitive constructs that have helped us survive in this world, a world that, in reality, is continuous. Since reality is continuous and discreteness is only in our minds, relativity and symmetry are also imaginary. Much as air and water are transparent to us, only because our visual system has evolved to sense a particular section of the spectrum of electromagnetic rays that can pass through their substance. Much as some flowers seem alluringly beautiful and fragrant to us because our senses evolved to consider them so.
Our search for equality is an expression of our yearning for symmetry. We express this innately and, by our conditioning by society and education, we even like to apply it to all fellow humans.
And this explains the divide between those on the two sides of the discourse of equality in society. Some express a desire that we are programmed with. The others, a reality they acknowledge despite the programming.
If inequality is real, so must be hierarchies.
But also, equality is too vague a term for any real-world entities, such as people. Comparability and, therefore, equality has to be of a specified attribute of those entities. An apple could be an orange’s equal in weight or volume but not likely in other properties.
Therefore, to say something like, “We must create a society of equals,” is meaningless. This seems obvious, but it is often used with all its vagueness to achieve a political-social goal, mostly intentionally. Under the all-encompassing term of equality, influencers (like politicians and other opinion-makers) sneak in a call for equality for traits where, in fact, inequality would be desirable.
Note that in a previous statement, I already said that I believe equalities of some kinds, i.e., of some attributes, are desirable, while for some traits, inequality is preferable. How then do we decide which inequalities we allow to continue and even increase and which we must attempt to eliminate?
In this case, the calculus for me, as in most other cases, is — what would lead to the uplifting of humanity as an aggregate? What would allow most human beings, as individuals, to achieve their potential? What would allow each to contribute to the raising of the tide? Which, in turn, will lead to the lifting up of all boats, including ours.
Potential and Success
We could define success in many ways, but for me, a good definition is the fulfillment of innate potential. This is good for an individual as well as for society.
Now I am guessing, nearly everyone reading this will have had the good fortune of having achieved their potential or being on their way to achieve it, or at least they know there is no insurmountable impediment on their path to attain it. We are the lucky ones. Many are not as fortunate. Not everyone can reach their potential.
We must remember, though, that just like equality, potential too is an umbrella term and could refer to many different abilities. This is what makes life unfair.
What’s unfair about life?
Life is like a decathlon; a person needs to have ten different skills to succeed. Someone with just one or two skills, even of exceptional levels, will likely be a failure.
But is this how it must be? No, definitely not. This is not just a moral predicament. It has a tangible societal and economic impact. The successes of individuals in a society do not just lift up the well-being of the individuals; it pulls up society as a whole. Each individual’s success lends a miniscule upward tug to everyone else’s success. It is in the interest of society and therefore of the world that everyone can perform up to their potential.
What if the individual without the full complement of skills at her disposal is provided some help to bridge the gap, something that will allow her to mine the amazing trove of talents she does possess?
Power, The Missing Element
When people talk of inequality, which inequality are they talking about? Inequality among people, yes, but of which attribute?
They are nearly always talking of an abstraction, which may be conveniently referred to as Power.
Those lucky enough to be born with power have the means to plug the lacunae in their set of desirable attributes. Their family or other support systems to which they have access pitches in. This allows them to take the exceptional talents that they do have to be honed and contribute to their and society’s good.
What about the one who is not as lucky? Must she miss out on achieving the full recognition and other rewards that her skills promise? Do we, as a society, miss out on their contributions that may benefit us?
It behooves society to ensure that the lack of other skills does not prevent her from exploiting the skills in which she excels. It is as much in the interest of society to bridge the gap as it is in hers. She may not have the power to bridge the gap, but collectively we do. Collectively, we must.
Power — Tipping Point
Power, at first, means the ability to control events that impact one’s own life. It is natural for anyone to accumulate more of it, usually as a cushion for future unforeseen events, and to ensure that their loved ones also share the protection and comforts that their power avails.
As the ability increases, the sphere of control expands to cover more and more of the environment and others’ lives. Then comes a tipping point — the time when the power increases to proportions where its influence is extraordinary. Inordinate powers like these can change a lot for the good of many or tilt the ground even more in their favor, and sometimes even well-meaning actions may lead to an unhealthy impact on others. In any event, even if those with such powers do not always act to corner the benefits for themselves, it is inevitable that when their interests are at risk, they will summon the force of all their powers to preserve them. Even the more altruistic and social-minded ones will not hesitate to use their clout to safeguard their interests. It is instinctive.
The power may manifest in several different ways. It could be wealth, political power, position in an organizational hierarchy, or the power of a megaphone that many in the media possess. However, its ability to distort equity remains the same.
As a society, then, it falls upon us to encourage those with power to use it for the good of society and to curb it if it is used to tilt the playing field unfairly in their favor.
Equality is artificial and even irrational, but for the entire society to progress to its potential, not only must the society pay attention to its weak, but it must also regulate the power of those who have become too strong.
These are also some of my reasons to call myself a liberal. (There are others about which I may write in the future). Most people gravitate toward liberalism based on their intuitive attraction to its paraphernalia. I cannot. I have to coax myself using my reasoning and the little knowledge I possess.