Understanding equality

What is equality?

The word equality has its root in the Latin term for knights – or equites – which meant propertied men who, unlike common foot soldiers, had sufficient wealth to ride into battle on a horse. They considered themselves to be equals among their peers but of a distinct social class from the common soldiery. As such, the modern concept of equality never really means a level playing field for all – such ideas are more associated with the concept of egalitarianism. Equality can, therefore, mean different things to different people and have unique meanings in different contexts around the world. Many people who campaign for greater equality want outcomes to be more equal and for people to have a fair chance in life rather than ensuring everyone has an exactly shared out amount of resource and wealth.

Why are equality rights important? 

In the past, many people were treated in an unequal way – something that continues in certain societies. By enshrining some human rights into law, usually in the form of a state constitution, people have gained equality rights which, for instance, meant that their rights to protest, to employment and to worship were protected. A good example is when women won the right to vote in Western countries. A previously disenfranchised group won the equal right to vote and to stand in elections meaning that their right to equality was established in law.

Are equality and fairness the same thing?

Most people feel that their sense of fairness is tied up with ideas surrounding equality. That said, the two concepts are different. People who are paid on an unequal basis, for example, may think that the difference is entirely fair given that they perform differently or work in slightly different ways even though there is no exact parity in their pay. In some cases, of course, fairness and equality coincide with one another, but it is not always so.

What is political equality?

It is usually defined as a group or society in which all members have the same standing, something which means their ability to speak and to vote is equally respected. This has been bound up with gender and racial equality in the past because women and certain ethnic groups have been disenfranchised in the past. This is one of the founding principles behind liberal democracy.

What is social equality?

A socially equal society provides a level playing field for all of its citizens. Of course, who is considered a citizen and who is not is a big part of what makes a society an equal one, or otherwise. This is a state of affairs in which freedom of speech, freedom of association, the ability to own property plus the freedom of political and religious views are respected. Where discrimination and social barriers exist, such a society will seek ways of overcoming them.

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At their simplest, human rights are a number of social norms that are in place to protect individuals from one another and larger organisations, such as big businesses or the state. The idea behind them is that no one can take away another person's rights which are said to be inalienable. That means that they cannot be subject to change or altered at the whim of a government or a dictator, for example. The idea of inalienable rights took off after the calamity of the Second World War when many civilians died as well as combatants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations in 1948, and it still creates much of the legal basis for international monitoring.
Freedom is an elusive concept because it means different things to different people. The fact that it can be interpreted differently is, ironically, down to the freedom we have over our own thoughts. For most people, the idea of freedom is best described as the ability to alter something – anything, in fact – freely. This is somewhat open-ended as a definition, however. As such, freedom tends to be referred to by contrasting it against its absence, in forms of social or economic control such as slavery, for example. When we are free of such constraints, we are said to be at liberty, that is the state in which we can act freely.
Income distribution is an economic measurement that looks at the gross domestic product (GDP) of a state and works out how evenly – or otherwise – this is distributed among its inhabitants. GDP is the total monetary value that a country has earned from all of its combined goods and services. However, global income distribution looks at the whole world's economy as a single entity and then assesses the distribution of such earnings across the global population. It does not measure or take into account wealth, however, which has been earned and stored in previous periods. The residual value of land, for example, would not be taken into account but money earned from growing crops on it would be.
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