In part one of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice. In part two, we will consider the increasingly contested notion of egalitarian justice.
Before looking directly at the idea of egalitarian justice, the meaning of the word “equality” must be further elucidated since its very definition has become one of the great controversies of our time.
Traditionally, equality primarily referred to the notion that all are (or at least should be) “equal under the law.” This phrase is inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Thus, laws should be applied fairly from the top to the bottom of society, for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the male and the female, the black and the white, and everyone in between. The statue of Lady Justice holding a scale while wearing a blindfold depicts this kind of egalitarian ideal. To fulfill her responsibilities justly, she must not allow race, nationality, social status, or material wealth (for example) to bias her application of justice to anyone or any group.
More recently, a second aspect of egalitarian justice has come to the fore of social concern, namely the question of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity helps ensure that the playing field of life is as level as possible. There’s no doubt this is a valid and important aspect of promoting justice and equality in society, but for many today, any unequal outcomes in society constitute incontestable evidence of social injustice and inequality. As racism guru Ibram X. Kendi declared, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” The assumption here is that if one (racial) group of people end up better educated, richer, and more powerful than others, there must have been some (racially systemic) unjust advantages and inequalities both at the outset of and throughout their lives producing those unequal outcomes.
The problem with thinking this way is that this (wrongly) assumes all human beings are equally situated, motivated, and talented from the very beginning of life. However, for whatever reasons, God has created everyone unique. Some are better athletes, some are better thinkers, some are better artists, engineers, teachers, singers, musicians, craftsmen, salespersons, etc. Thus, if inequity equals (racial) injustice, then God is unjust because we are not all created equal in terms of our backgrounds, intelligence, capacities, talents, abilities, socio-economic location, etc.
On the contrary, this is not evidence of racism or sin but evidence of uniqueness. And since every human being is made in God’s image, every human being is of eternal worth to God. But that does not mean we are exactly the same. Just as there is distinctness and yet equality within the Godhead, so there is distinctness and equality within the human race. Consequently, different outcomes don’t necessarily mean there is systemic injustice or racial inequality.
Justice in this light does not seek equal outcomes so much as it tries to create systems that are genuinely fair and do not give undue advantages to others. The idea is to level the playing field of life by somehow empowering those who clearly start at a disadvantage, enabling them to better succeed alongside others who begin life and certain endeavors (like education, for example) with greater advantages.
Unfortunately, what these systems should look like and how they can be maintained are very difficult questions to answer. In theory, at least, they are possible to create, implement, and maintain, even when, because of different talents, abilities, motivations, etc., social stratification inevitably occurs over time. Such stratification is not, as it stands, invariably or inherently evil, although in the light of human selfishness and sin, it very often does become a means to express injustice, especially against the weak and marginalized. In short, people with roughly equal abilities and starting points often end up in very different socioeconomic situations.
To be sure, this certainly is sometimes the fault of unjust social structures and systems that wrongly discriminate against others on some sort of illegitimate basis like race or gender. This might manifest itself as a lack of equality under the law and/or inappropriate discriminatory social and cultural attitudes and traditions. But it is also sometimes the result of several other factors like (to name a few) difficult family life, personality, bad luck, laziness, ignorance, trauma, lack of motivation, or even such things like the voluntary decision to live a life of simplicity and poverty.
Too often, as economist Thomas Sowell points out, too few (or even the wrong) factors and not enough concrete nuances are considered when egalitarian concerns are brought to bear on specific real-life situations. For example, the goals of programs like “affirmative action” are clearly directed at rectifying inequities in educational opportunities for certain minorities. The idea is to make it possible for those who started out behind others to make up lost ground.
This is noble and good. But determining exactly who starts out disadvantaged, why, and to what extent, becomes exceptionally difficult to determine without discerning the very specific situations of individuals and groups on a case-by-case basis. It is far easier and more efficient to create clearly delineated groups and classes of people to be the recipients of these leveling programs, especially when large organizations and entities like governments and corporations are involved. You can simply draw a racial and/or economic line and set a standard amount of aid to be given without dealing with the concrete nuances and root issues of people’s lives on the ground.
Admittedly, heroic efforts have been made to create fair and more specific means for deciding these matters, but the greater the distance between the disseminators of these benefits and the recipients, the more likely bureaucratic waste and corruption will arise. But again, on an even more basic level, the assumption that in a properly structured and justly administrated society, all people from every subgroup will have similar life outcomes is fundamentally flawed.
Thomas Sowell says it well in The Quest for Cosmic Justice: “A society that puts equality [at the fore]—in the sense of equality of outcome—will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” In short, the quest for equality without recognition of other crucially important factors of justice will result in an unjust society where coercion is used to bring about equal distribution instead of finding a balance between different and equally valid and important forms of justice. As a result, one vision of egalitarian justice (equal outcomes for all) gets set in opposition to other forms like meritorious justice. The inevitable (and deeply ironic) result is injustice in the name of a justice. In the last century, places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and Russia (to name a few) give ample evidence off the murderous and tragic results of this kind of forced execution of “egalitarian justice” in an attempt to bring about the (not so) “great society.”
The essential confusion here is assuming that equality equals sameness and equal outcomes when in fact God does not advocate sameness as the goal of life. He advocates harmonious integration, interdependence, and mutual appreciation, something that assumes the presence of unique and interwoven parts, but also requires difference as inherent to the very fabric of existence. Romans 15:1-3, 5-7 puts the vision this way: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
To say, however, that all people must be treated equally under the law is very different from saying all people must have the same endowments, possessions, talents, skills, and capacities and in order to achieve the same basic life outcomes. In addition, what you don’t want to end up doing is punishing people for being exceptional and using their gifts and abilities to excel. Yes, they can use those talents and abilities for selfish ends, but they can also use them for the greater benefit of all. The issue is not so much with exceptionalism as it is with how that exceptionalism is used in reference to others. Do I use my gifts, talents, and resources to care for and empower others or do I use them to enrich my own life to the exclusion, detriment, and diminishment of others?
Much more could be said here, but I have said little about the issues surrounding fair distribution of goods and services (a matter of equitable and egalitarian justice) versus fair distribution of overall resources within a society. This aspect, often called “need” justice, pertains to those in society who, for various reasons, find themselves in dire circumstances and need immediate (and often ongoing) assistance to live and survive. It is to this expression of justice we will now turn our attention in the third and concluding part in this series on true justice.