Equality is often in the news today. Headlines abound about racial inequality in the justice system. Articles point out that African American males far out number white males in the prison system, and that unjust police practices and use of excessive force are often used on them. The LGBT movement is calling for marital-equality. The poor are protesting for income equality. Activists are rallying for gender equality. In all the rallying, all the discussing, all the legislating, there is a widespread belief that all should be equal. But what is equality?
Aristotle defines equality as the same treatment of similar persons. In this definition, similarity creates the group being compared. This is important for deciding whether equality is being upheld. In the nineteenth century, white males were afforded all rights by the government, while black males were afforded none. By some this was viewed as unequal, but by many it was not. This was because many whites viewed race as the defining aspect of similarity. Those who were white belonged in one category, while those who were black belonged in another. Equality was not an issue because whites and blacks were not similar persons. This view began to shift as the definition of similarity began to change. More and more people called for similarity to be defined as being human, rather than by being white or black. As this change happened, inequality among blacks and whites became a prominent issue.
Harper Lee interacts with this issue in her book To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, an African American, who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. During his defense, Atticus declares the court “the great leveler” because all are to be treated the same no matter their skin color, political position, income, gender, or intelligence. A person is afforded no advantage over another, and all are subject to the decisions equally. Atticus has the broadest definition of similarity: anyone who is being tried. Yet he understands the tensions present with this: the people of this small Alabama County do not share his definition of similarity. To many of them, similarity is still based upon race rather than humanity.
Atticus’ definition of similarity, however, is contained to the court room. He scoffs at the idea of the “dumb and idle” being promoted through school along with the “smart and diligent.” He creates two different categories, and defines the categories as dissimilar. Similarity, in the case of educational promotion, should be based upon ability and achievement, rather than on basic humanity. Atticus believes that similarity, and therefore equality, is a concept which needs to be applied contextually.
What defines similarity in one context may not be appropriate in another. Is it a matter of equality whether a white males and black males of similar economic standing are given the same tax breaks. Yes it is, because they are similar persons when similarity is defined as economic standing. Would that same definition hold up when discussing the right to vote? No, because economic standing should have no bearing on one’s right to vote. You may argue with this and say that similarity for tax breaks was to narrowly defined; economic standing should have no bearing on what tax breaks a person should receive. Rather, all people should be included. All people should receive the same tax breaks.
Similarity defined as personhood, as this would be, is great when it comes to basic human rights. All people should be free from hunger. All people should be free from enslavement. All people should be free from abuse. All people should be free to vote. Yet, even this definition fails when applied in different contexts. Should a blind man be granted a driver’s license? Should a felon be given a gun? We inherently understand that there are certain attributes that qualify or disqualify us from doing something. We understand that equality is contextualized, yet we do not often talk of it that way.