“Liberty, equality, fraternity!”: the equality sandwich served up by the French revolutionaries. The outer terms were there mainly because the meat—like the French laborers—needed bread for support. “Equality” seemed to them infinitely more palatable when surrounded by such fine-sounding terms as “liberty” and “fraternity;” airy yet substantial, like a baguette. But the essence of the Revolution was that the Nobles and Royals and Priests were to be pulled down, and the People elevated.
Tastes have changed, and perhaps grossened, since those guillotine days; we now find “equality!” palatable as an entrée unto itself. Most contemporary people seem to take it for granted that equality, in and of itself, is a worthy goal. In our zeal for “equality!” we have eschewed all varieties of discrimination. But some types of discrimination can be a very good thing—for example, the types that are synonymous with “discernment” or “good taste.”
Insofar as our ideal of equality causes us to eschew these good varieties of discrimination, it is a false ideal. And I would go further. I would argue that in any given context, equality is never the fundamental good, and inequality is never the fundamental evil.
Suppose there is a man of egalitarian meanness: he treats all of his fellow creatures badly, to an equal degree. Now suppose that some gentle soul—a child, an injured bird, or a puppy—finds a way into his heart. Now the man treats all creatures badly except this one, which he treats with kindness. His meanness is no longer egalitarian, but I think we can all agree that he has made moral progress.
Goodness impels us not to treat all equally, but to treat all lovingly.
Generosity, love, compassion: these are fundamentally good. Equality is not. For to treat children lovingly is to treat them differently than adults—and to treat vegetarian dinner guests lovingly entails treating them differently than carnivorous ones.
The enslavement of black people, and their subsequent mistreatment, is one of the ugliest parts of American history, but inequality is not its fundamental evil. The primary evil was that people were treated cruelly: their freedom was sacrificed to the god of profit; their bodies were bruised, driven, and violated; their families were broken up; their opportunities for human flourishing were purposely thwarted in the pursuit of infinitely less valuable goods. It is of merely secondary importance that the race of these people was invoked as justification for this mistreatment, and that other races of people were treated better. It is wrong for people to be mistreated at all, for whatever reason. Yet in this case, the racist rationalization does constitute a secondary evil. But what is the nature of this evil?
It has been said by various theorists of jurisprudence and morality, going back to Aristotle, that to treat like things alike and different things differently is the essence of justice. This may not be the whole meaning of justice, but, as far as it goes, it makes undeniable sense. This is the principle of non-arbitrariness. There is a great deal of moral significance, then, in the ability to discern which things are alike in the relevant senses, and which are different. One who has this ability is called “discriminating.” The partisan of equality wishes to maintain that it is wrong to discriminate between people in general. But this is patently untrue: otherwise, it would be wrong to treat a child or a vegetarian differently than an adult or a carnivore. What is wrong is the false judgment that leads us to conclude, probably for selfish reasons, that people who are really alike in the relevant senses are different—or that people who are really different in the relevant senses are alike. The differences between black people and white people are skin deep: they are similar in virtually all of the ways that are relevant in determining the sorts of opportunities for human flourishing that they should be accorded. Thus, it is not discrimination as such but the inaccuracy of the discrimination that constitutes the inherent evil of racism.
Particular inequalities may or may not signal that something is wrong—but if there is something wrong, it will always be something else. False judgment, arbitrariness, malice, greediness, apathy: these are among the true evils of which inequality is sometimes a symptom. If we put our discrimination to rest upon the discovery of inequality, thinking that we have already uncovered the fundamental evil, we will do nothing more than to direct the protest march of equality in more and yet more directions, while the underlying evils go untreated.
Let us take the gay marriage debate as a case in point. This protest march of inequality has recently been directed against the allegedly unconstitutional discrimination of gay couples who wish to be married. The Supreme Court has taken it upon itself to resolve the legal question. Whether this was an appropriate question for the judiciary to resolve, and whether the legal question was resolved correctly are questions I will not attempt to address here. Parenthetically, it is my fervent opinion that the answer to both questions is “No.” But for now, my purpose is merely to show that one aspect of the rhetoric on the other side is invalid. Proponents of gay marriage have stated as an argument the fact that under the contested laws, gay couples are treated unequally. Well, yes. But inequality is not necessarily wrong. Where one relationship is different in relevant ways from another relationship, it is defensible to treat those relationships differently. And indeed, it may even be unjust to treat them equivalently. Whether a gay relationship is relevantly different from a dual-gendered relationship is a debatable (and debated) question. But this question should be the whole substance of the debate. Insofar as the gay marriage rhetoric cites the inequality as an argument in itself, without bothering to show why the inequality is unjustified, it is simply invalid.
Various dystopian novelists have warned us against making “equality” synonymous with “good.” They have felt the need to do so because equality has been seeking to set itself up as the monarch of Western values. It has been hankering after the ideological throne ever since its first fat days of privilege in the French Revolution. It is growing lavish, prideful, and oppressive.
The protest march continues to gain momentum. Yet if I felt the effort capable of success, I would call for a counterrevolution: not a return to a class-obsessed society, but a return to the discriminating moral sense that discerns the ethical complexity that is covered over by the illegitimate banner of equality. This would be my rallying cry:
“Citizens, it is now discrimination’s turn, humbled into its best self, to marshal its forces. Vive la revolution!”