Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

[This is the first in a loose series of posts attempting to articulate the implications of inequality, of various sorts, in our society and economy. ]

It seems counter-intuitive to claim that we should hold something to be true when it isn’t, but it seems to me that there are at least a few cases in which we should act as if something is true even if it is not. The example that I have in mind has to do with equality.

As Catholics we believe that all human beings are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. In the US, all people are equal in the eyes of the law. However, this does not necessarily mean that all people are of equal ability in regard to any specific quality. And indeed, it’s readily apparent that people are indeed not equal in regards to ability. Some people have greater physical abilities than others. There is huge variation in mental ability, and among different kinds of mental ability. And there is a fair amount of evidence that much of this variation is either genetic, or determined by experiences so early in life as to be much more the result of your relatives choices than your own.

And yet, as I’ve written a couple times in discussing Charles Murray’s ideas about education, most of us in American culture naturally rebel against making changes in how we educate children in our society based on “simple facts” such as Murray’s:”Ability varies” and “Half of the children are below average”. (If you want to test your sensibilities against this, read this 2007 WSJ piece on educating the bottom of the intelligence curve and see if you find yourself, like me, sputtering, “But, but… You can’t say that.”)

Some of this is just outraged sensibilities. We believe in equality, and so we rebel against hearing about a situation in which hard work and good mentoring can’t make anything possible for anyone. And yet clearly, at a factual level, no matter how much we don’t like it, it is not actually the case that anyone could go on to do anything. A lot of people simply don’t have the abilities to “do anything”. (Actually, no one has the ability to truly “do anything” — but some people at least have the ability to truly excel in enough things that they don’t worry about the rest.)

And yet, I think there may actually be a lot of good to our illusions in this case. Because while it’s true that there are large differences in ability, I’m fairly skeptical of our ability to systematically identify those differences and provide people with education “suitable to their abilities” in some sort of organized fashion. There may be a certain amount of waste and heartbreak inherent in acting as if anyone could grow up to be president, or a CEO, or a concert pianist, but the risks of treating everyone as if they had great potential and then seeing who sifts out seem lower than trying to identify which people have potential, providing them with good educations, and then shunting everyone else off into some ability-appropriate program to turn them into good worker ants. There is a limit to how much money and time should be spent trying to achieve the unachievable, but going in the direction of a know-your-place, multi-track educational program such as is seen in Japan and parts of Europe seems to be an approach which would abandon something which is important and positive in the American psyche. And, perhaps because I participate in that American ideal, I find it easier to accept the idea of all people being offered opportunities, and many of them failing to reach the heights, than classifying people based on measurable ability and sending them onto an ability-appropriate track. The illusion of equality may be important here.

17 Responses to Equality, A False Assumption That We Need

  • This post reminds me of two books, DC… Bork’s discussion of radical egalitarianism in “Slouching Towards Gommorah” and it negative impact its had on American society in the last forty years, and more recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, in which he argues that a big portion of success is due to things beyond the control of the person who is successful (i.e. the relevant of various environmental factors).

    I take your point regarding education, but your final sentence gives me pause… can it be that we are really better served by an illusion than by reality?

  • Truth is always better.

    The important truth here, however, is one which is not well understood.

    “All men are created equal” is a falsehood, at least as regards abilities. God gives different talents to each, different graces to each, different circumstances to each. Whither then equality?

    The truism lies elsewhere: Moral Rights are always the other side of a Moral Duty, and these all point to the end of life, which is to freely exercise our God-given creativity in a single pursuit, that of knowing, loving, and serving God.

    “Equality” in the phrase “all men are created equal” therefore comes from two places:

    (1.) The equal love of God, in that He loves His created persons each infinitely and infinities are as equal as makes no odds; and,

    (2.) The right to moral treatment of each person, which is the reflection of the moral duty of all other persons to treat them morally. A subcomponent of this duty is that component which deals with force, and that force is twofold: (a.) The force we use to protect innocents against force or fraud by others, and (b.) The force we exercise against non-innocents when they initiate force or fraud against innocents.

    Now under the broader heading of moral treatment of persons, the hallmark of moral use of force is this: (a.) We are morally obligated to offer equal protection to all innocents in proportion to the value God assigns them with His infinite love, not in proportion to some lesser attribute such as income or ability; and, (b.) We are morally obligated to exercise force against them in proportion to their crimes or attacks only, without regard to other attributes such as income or political connections.

    Item (a.) is generally phrased “equal protection under law” and Item (b.) is generally phrased “let the punishment fit the crime” or in cases of warfare “proportional response.”

    In the end, then, WE DO NOT NEED TO LIE TO OURSELVES.

    (We should never. No one who wishes to be on good terms with the person who calls Himself the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life, should be thus dismissive of the truth merely because it is convenient.)

    Instead we must understand that “equality among men” is a more particular kind of equality, expressed in two spheres; namely, judgments of transcendent value, and our duties in the use of force (normatively, through the tool called government).

    TRANSCENDENT VALUE: God loves us all infinitely, and we should be imitators of Christ, who is one in being with the Father. Being finite beings we lack the power to exercise infinite love for all equally, but we come close by exercising great love for all equally. Ergo: We value all human lives equally, and live lives of sacrificial love directed at our neighbor equally with ourselves.

    USE OF FORCE (normatively): Equal protection under law, proportional armed response, and punishments that fit the crime.

    USE OF FORCE (in the gravest extreme): Just War Doctrine (for gravest-extreme force writ large), Proportional Response for self-defense with intent to stop, not slay or exercise revenge on, an attacker (for gravest-extreme force, writ small).

    There is no lie in these formulations of equality.

    One final note: The above would work well if human beings were all Vulcans a la “Star Trek”: Able to suit their actions to known logical truisms at all times.

    However, we are passionate creatures and our emotions need taming and training.

    Hence one other addendum: In applying the terms of equality described above, we must undergird our intent with feelings of love as best we can. We must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, feel divine charity towards others. This often doesn’t work, so we must often act as we would act if we felt that way, in the hopes that our feelings will “catch up” over time.

    Some might regard THIS as a self-deceit, an illusion: “Isn’t it lying to myself or others, to act in a way I don’t really feel?”

    But it is not, because when our emotions are disordered, they tell us nothing about what is true, but rather react in a way that is closer to falsehood. In that sense, emotions are not like thoughts which can be true or false; they are more like the weather, which merely happens (sometimes conveniently and helpfully, sometimes inconveniently and unhelpfully).

    To the extent we resist, subdue, and retrain those emotions over time, we are in no way being dishonest; we are rather re-calibrating our emotions to be reflective of the truth. This is an intrinsically honest act, since it acknowledges the truth and acts upon it.

    In the end, our first loyalty is to the truth. How could it be otherwise, when our first loyalty always belongs rightfully to The Truth?

  • To talk about “equality” in these terms is to use the word in such a general way as to make it incomprehensible. Its too abstract. Equality of what? Health, happiness, sanctity, income, appearance of worldly success, ego? Not an exhaustive list, but I think you get the idea. Equality in my mind or that of others? How many others?
    Equality of dignity? Equality of ability? Equality of opportunity? Equality of outcome? I think you need more specificity.

  • Patrick makes a good point. ‘Equality’ in the general sense is not a principle of the founding father’s of the United States, conversely it is a principle of the French revolution.

    The founding father’s explain their use of “created equal” by saying what rights they are endowed with – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Looking at these, I think I want to hone and limit by point a bit:

    It strikes me that it’s a basic (or at least, very commonly held) American idea that anyone could go anywhere and do anything. Often people tell this to kids, “If you work hard enough, you can grow up to be absolutely anything you want.”

    However, many studies suggest that is pretty definitely not the case. People who are below average in a set of abilities at age 8 are usually not going to turn around and excel in those abilities ten or twenty years later. If you have a low IQ at eight, you will probably never have a high IQ. If you have low musical abilities at eight, you will probably not become a concert pianist. If you are lowsy at sports at eight, you will probably not become a pro baseball player. Etc.

    Some people take from this that we should test people at an early age, determine their abilities, and not bother wasting resources on trying to teach people things they won’t be able to do. Thus, if someone tested as having an IQ of 90 and low mathematical abilities, you wouldn’t bother ever trying to teach that person math beyond a six or eighth grade level. If someone had low verbal abilities, you wouldn’t try putting them through high school literature, much less college. Etc.

    I think there’s a certain appeal to this approach for some libertarians and conservatives, partly because we’re used to arguing against quota systems which are used to try to guarantee equality of outcome.

    However, even though we know that people do not have equal abilities, it seems to me that we are better off trying to educate people as if they do have equal abilities — partly out of a sense of idealistic fairness, but mostly because it seems to me that the evils of telling someone “You’ll never amount to anything much, so you go over there and learn to be a manual worker. Don’t bother with any math, science or literature.” are much greater than the evils of “wasting” resources on trying to teach people things that they don’t end up mastering very well.

    That’s not to say that I think we should pour infinite resources into _making_ them come out equal. After all, they probably won’t anyway, since people don’t actually have equal abilities. But it seems to me that “anyone could amount to something” is an important ideal to maintain, because although it is true that in a worldly sense not everyone will amount to anything, I’m not sure that we’re likely to be as good as we think we can be about telling who is capable of amounting to something, and the injustice of closing people off from opportunity strikes me as much greater than the “waste” associated with offering them opportunity they don’t fulfill.

    Hopefully that’s a little more clear…

  • And much is expected from those to whom much is given. At the end of the day, those lacking in abilities who keep on keeping on may be astonished to find themselves first, for some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.

  • “Some people take from this that we should test people at an early age, determine their abilities, and not bother wasting resources on trying to teach people things they won’t be able to do.”

    I believe that is exactly what we ought to do… though the tests must be able to account for psychological problems that can inhibit academic performance.

    “but mostly because it seems to me that the evils of telling someone “You’ll never amount to anything much, so you go over there and learn to be a manual worker. Don’t bother with any math, science or literature.” are much greater than the evils of “wasting” resources on trying to teach people things that they don’t end up mastering very well.”

    It surprises me that the person who is usually a libertarian pragmatist in economic matters is making this argument now :)

    If the contention here is that specialized programs necessarily result in the message to less intelligent students that they will “never amount to anything”, I say that is illogical.

    Social attitudes, which are malleable, have more to do with how this kind of education would be received than anything else. Having a blue collar job that pays well is not “amounting to nothing” – especially if a person has a family, has friends, has a faith and a community.

    It is only “amounting to nothing” by the snobbish bourgeois standards of the upper classes. “Everyone must go to college” is how the white upper class, at the same time, a) validates its mode of existence, b) declares it superior to others, c) relieves its misplaced guilt that not everyone shares in the boundless privilege of their world.

    I firmly believe we should have a tracked educational system, because it would be much better for the many who actually do fall through the cracks. How many “gangbangers” and “trailer trash” would have benefited from a solid “blue collar” trade school track, instead of having the smoke of college blown up their bums?

    Society works best, and people function their best, when they have a rough idea of their place and when each social place is respected – not belittled through a complicated, contradictory, and often self-indulgent psychological issue held by people in positions of importance (who have forgotten their own role).

    I do disagree, however, with Murray’s comment at the end about “social problems” – he clearly has a materialist bent on his approach. The wealthy have sins as much as the poor, the educated as much as the uneducated.

    In fact, I believe the sins of wealth and power and intellect are far greater – and so does the Bible, in the Book of Wisdom. The lowly are always granted special pardon by God, while the mighty will suffer a mighty torment for neglecting their duties or abusing their power. The kind of vocational education that Murray is talking about – what 99% of education has become – does not and cannot improve or heal the soul. People with high IQs can be sociopathic monsters.

    But there IS a kind of education that can do it… the more I read Mortimer Adler, Alan Bloom, et. al., I am convinced of that. I think it is a very Catholic notion as well, though none of the Catholic schools teach it.

  • I mean none of the grade schools. But Thomas Aquinas College has the sort of program I am talking about. Only there is no reason it can’t be begun in high school for those who are interested (regardless of IQ).

  • It is only “amounting to nothing” by the snobbish bourgeois standards of the upper classes. “Everyone must go to college” is how the white upper class, at the same time, a) validates its mode of existence, b) declares it superior to others, c) relieves its misplaced guilt that not everyone shares in the boundless privilege of their world.

    And yet it seems that this notion is primarily espoused by the left-wing academic elite, who claim to have the interests of the less forunate as their goal.

    In any event, the premise is very good. People who can’t get into college academically for whatever reason SHOULD NOT BE IN COLLEGE. Therefore, eliminate all forms of affirmative action in college admissions (that is not to say there shouldn’t be FINANCIAL assistance for those who are able to succeed academically but lack the financial wherewithal). Instead, there should be generous offerings for trade schools which would allow those unable to meet academic standards to be materially successful and perhaps build a better life than their parents enjoyed, and especially provide a better future for their own children.

  • Well Matt, we agree 99%.

    I’m not sure it is an exclusively left-wing belief. It was, as Murray points out in other articles, a tenant of the Bush administration via “No Child Left Behind”.

  • “People who are below average…are usually not going to turn around and excel in those abilities ten and twenty years later.” The key word in your sentence, though, is “usually.” You did not say “never.” I think there is a substantive public policy and moral judgement difference between the two.

    The second most important word you used was “excel.” Let me give you an example to make my point: Our local public school system felt that high school PE should not be graded on measures of physical ability (e.g. running, jumping, reach, etc.) because some people had it and others don’t. So, instead, they give “grades” based on just showing up, and so forth, playing non-competitive games and so forth, while claiming that their goal is to turn the students into adults that have a life long dedication to fitness, Yahda, yahda, yahda. (Obviously, if that’s the goal, you can’t measure whether they have excelled at their work, but that’s another topic.)

    The Catholic high school doesn’t measure fitness in absolute terms, either. However, they measure improvement over the semester. Base line test the first day, final test at the end. Various sports and fitness training inbetween. I can’t measure their graduates’ life long fitness either, but over 1/3 of the students turn out for the track team every year and Sports Illustrated rates them the #2 sports high school in the country.

    My point is that, as someone who is, at this point in my life, the policy maker, rather than the student, my goal is to make things better than they would be without me. Our local public school district about breaks their own arm patting themselves on the back about the academic success of their top students. However, longitudinal comparisons show that they take students that come to them well above average academically and the schools turn them into above average students. Is that a good school district? On the other hand, what would you say about a district that takes kids from the 10th percentile on average and moves them over 12 years to the 30th percentile?

    So, coming back full circle, I have some involvement with a local Jesuit Nativity School, a middle school for inner city kids. The typical student comes to them, entering 7th grade, with academic skills at about the 3rd grade level. Six years later, their record is that roughly 19 of their kids out of 20 go to college.

    Can you be anything you want to be? I’m not sure that’s a relevant question. The greater social issue is whether young people are being led to have the motivation to try to be anything. I see a lot of kids who are just drifting. For them, it isn’t a matter of what opportunities are available to them. The issue is whether they are willing to make the sacrifices required to take advantage of them.

  • The kind of vocational education that Murray is talking about – what 99% of education has become – does not and cannot improve or heal the soul. People with high IQs can be sociopathic monsters.

    But there IS a kind of education that can do it… the more I read Mortimer Adler, Alan Bloom, et. al., I am convinced of that. I think it is a very Catholic notion as well, though none of the Catholic schools teach it.

    I do strongly agree with you there. I believe strongly that everyone can benefit from a strong liberal arts/humanistic education up through what I think ought to be about a high school level — and I strongly object to the idea that some people should be sectioned off at the age of eight or ten and told: “You’ll never be able to follow math beyond basic arithmetic, and you’ll have decent reading or writing skill so why bother.”

    I very much like what Adler and Bloom have to say about education, and I looked at going to TAC, though in some ways I think it’s better as a high school approach than a college approach.

    I guess that’s where the “It surprises me that the person who is usually a libertarian pragmatist in economic matters is making this argument now” part of it comes in. Part of my libertarian-ish leaning has to do with wanting to see equality of opportunity. And another part has to do with distrusting people’s ability to predict the future — and thus not wanting to see people cut off from opportunity.

    I want to get back to your point about pursuing a blue collar career not being “not amounting to anything” in a later post, because it leads into some other thinking I want to get into in regards to the modern economy and the problem of inequality. For now, I’ll just stick to saying that I think if you have a liberal arts level education at a high school level, it’s a overall gain as a human being. And I am concerned that when someone doesn’t go to college they often end up putting themselves on a road which makes it a lot hard to hit higher income brackets. How much of a problem one sees that narrowing of opportunity as depents on a lot of other things.

  • Joe,

    I’m not sure it is an exclusively left-wing belief. It was, as Murray points out in other articles, a tenant of the Bush administration via “No Child Left Behind”.

    I said primarily, and I would never deny that Bush was sometimes influenced by the elite on the left (it was Teddy’s bill after all).

  • D,

    “For now, I’ll just stick to saying that I think if you have a liberal arts level education at a high school level, it’s a overall gain as a human being.”

    I agree, but I don’t think it should be subject to testing and grading. A simple pass/fail perhaps, and those who excel can be singled out for honors courses that are more challenging.

    America has become obsessed with grades, with quantitative indicators of intelligence. There is no evidence that it has ever made America a better country.

    Vocational education should be graded, though. No argument there.

    “And I am concerned that when someone doesn’t go to college they often end up putting themselves on a road which makes it a lot hard to hit higher income brackets.”

    Statistically, yes – though returns on educational investment are decreasing.

    It wasn’t this way when industry and manufacturing took place in this country. College-mania is in many ways a consequence of the destruction of real opportunities for blue collar work that was skilled and in demand.

  • I agree, but I don’t think it should be subject to testing and grading. A simple pass/fail perhaps, and those who excel can be singled out for honors courses that are more challenging.

    America has become obsessed with grades, with quantitative indicators of intelligence. There is no evidence that it has ever made America a better country.

    I’d have to think about that. Having been homeschooled in high school, I effectively went without grades, and I don’t think it hurt me in any big ways. But at the same time _some kind_ of measurement of performance is often useful to people, especially highly competitive ones. Still, I’d agree that there’s an over/wrong emphasis on grading and testing often in education.

    It wasn’t this way when industry and manufacturing took place in this country. College-mania is in many ways a consequence of the destruction of real opportunities for blue collar work that was skilled and in demand.

    Agreed, to an extent. I think a bigger influence has been that technological advancements and globalization have allowed modern “knowledge workers” to be far more productive, measured in terms of the dollar impacts of their actions, than much of anyone could be 50 years ago — thus allowing that type of worker to far outstrip blue collar workers. Though I’m not sure to what extent we can do anything about that, or that it would be a good idea to if we tried.

  • As someone in a “blue collar” manufacturing industry, I can tell you that your concept, Joe, of herding high school students who aren’t making it academically into shop class is a quarter century out of date. Vocational education is no longer done at the high school level, although you may find some lingering traces of it. You need high school level math, science and computer skills to succeed in a blue collar occupation these days, because the specific training you need for your career is done at the community college/junior college level.

  • “Shop class” was just an example. And there is no reason it can’t be brought back, that the sort of training one gets at a junior college cannot in fact begin in high school.

    Delayed adulthood is a social problem, not a blessing, as I see it. High school age teenagers are capable of a lot more than modern society gives them credit for. For those not pursuing a “white collar” professional career, there is no reason that trade school can’t be over by the age of 18, with more specialized training occurring on the job.

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