The Philosophical Notion of Equality

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This article investigates the meaning of equality. This is not a historical, legal, or sociological study. It is a speculative or philosophical inquiry into the fundamental meaning of equality as it relates to society. It tries to elucidate the meaning of equality in Mulieris Dignitatem. (1) Equality is not a univocal term, and as it relates to social dealings it is essentially tied to the virtue of justice.


Many are familiar with the famous phrase uttered by Jesus of Nazareth to his apostles: "[W]ho do you say that I am?" (2) The answer one gives is life changing, whether one responds correctly or incorrectly. Much time has transpired since then and new messiahs have often appeared. In today's world, salvation is often reduced to the establishment of a good society, and a society built on universal equality is among the primary contenders. (3) Unfortunately, the term equality is widely used today but little understood. A cursory glance on the Internet indicates many mainstream uses: gender equality, race equality, political equality, social equality, equal opportunity, same sex equality, economic equality, equality of religions, and legal equality, to mention just a few.

In today's cultural milieu of relativistic thought, this response touches one aspect of equality. Moreover, with political correctness so embedded in Anglo-American society, these notions of equality are almost universally and unquestionably accepted. (4) Contemporary literature engaging the above-mentioned fields often assumes that the term "equality" is a synonym of "sameness" or even "identity." (5) Such language is even present in John Paul II's apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), which uses terms like identity and equality. (6)

There certainly has to be some relationship between the terms equality, identity, and sameness, otherwise their common appearance would be less than universal. At the same time, one should acknowledge that these terms can be used in different ways or used with different meanings. Is not the divergence of meaning obvious when public debate is about democracy, justice, rights, and equality?

If it is true that "being" can be said in many ways, then particular beings are in no way exempt. (7) What, then, does equality mean? If one were to ask a group of lawyers what equality meant, the response might be that "we are all the same or equal under the law." Do we all have the same intelligence, the same height, the same weight, the same hair color, make the same mistakes, pay the same taxes, and make the same money? To be the same or equal under the law does not mean, however, that we are all the same in an absolute sense. If we are not the same in an absolute sense, then in what way are we equal under the law?

If one were to ask a political philosopher what the Declaration of Independence principally means by the phrase "all men are created equal," (8) he (or, to be equal about it, she) would say it means that since every man is given the gift of intelligence and will, he can determine his future in unison with the community of men, denying, at the same time, a divine right for one man to rule over all. In other words, it is the difference between being citizens and being subjects. By personal experience, without needing to go down a whole list of professions and people who in their daily lives use the word equality, one can already see many shades and meanings.


How does one cut through this dense jungle of such diverse and rich flora and become capable of cataloging and mapping it? It is helpful to go back to the origin or origins of the word, not just philologically but also philosophically. Equality comes from equal, which comes from the Latin aequus. (9) There are various usages of this word. First, it refers to an even, flat space, which also has the connotation of favorable. …