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Social equality is a state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in certain respects, including civil rights, freedom of speech, property rights and equal access to certain social goods and services. However, it also includes concepts of health equality, economic equality and other social securities. It also includes equal opportunities and obligations, and so involves the whole of society. Social equality requires the absence of legally enforced social class or caste boundaries and the absence of discrimination motivated by an inalienable part of a person's identity. For example, sex, gender, race, age, sexual orientation, origin, caste or class, income or property, language, religion, convictions, opinions, health or disability must absolutely not result in unequal treatment under the law and should not reduce opportunities unjustifiably.
Equal opportunities is interpreted as being judged by ability, which is compatible with a free-market economy. Relevant problems are horizontal inequality − the inequality of two persons of same origin and ability and differing opportunities given to individuals − such as in (education) or by inherited capital.
Conceivements of social equality may vary per philosophy and individual and other than egalitarianism it does not necessarily require all social inequalities to be eliminated by artificial means but instead often recognizes and respects natural differences between people.
The standard of equality that states everyone is created equal at birth is called ontological equality. This type of equality can be seen in many different places like the Declaration of Independence. This early document, which states many of the values of the United States of America, has this idea of equality embedded in it. It clearly states that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". The statement reflects the philosophy of John Locke and his idea that we are all equal in certain natural rights. Although this standard of equality is seen in documents as important as the Declaration of Independence, it is "one not often invoked in policy debates these days". However this notion of equality is often used to justify inequalities such as material inequality. Dalton Conley claims that ontological equality is used to justify material inequality by putting a spotlight on the fact, legitimated by theology, that "the distribution of power and resources here on earth does not matter, because all of us are equally children of God and will have to face our maker upon dying". Dalton Conley, the author of You May Ask Yourself, claims that ontological equality can also be used to put forth the notion that poverty is virtue. Luciano Floridi, author of a book about information, wrote about what he calls the ontological equality principle. His work on information ethics raises the importance of equality when presenting information. Here is a short sample of his work:
- Information ethics is impartial and universal because it brings to ultimate completion the process of enlargement of the concept of what may count as a centre of a (no matter how minimal) moral claim, which now includes every instance of being understood informationally, no matter whether physically implemented or not. In this respect information ethics holds that every entity as an expression of being, has a dignity constituted by its mode of existence and essence (the collection of all the elementary properties that constitute it for what it is), which deserve to be respected (at least in a minimal and overridable sense), and hence place moral claims on the interacting agent and ought to contribute to the constraint and guidance of his ethical decisions and behaviour.
Floridi goes onto claim that this "ontological equality principle means that any form of reality (any instance of information/being), simply for the fact of being what it is, enjoys a minimal, initial, overridable, equal right to exist and develop in a way which is appropriate to its nature." Values in his claims correlate to those shown in the sociological textbook You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley. The notion of "ontological equality" describes equality by saying everything is equal by nature. Everyone is created equal at birth. Everything has equal right to exist and develop by its nature.
Another standard of equality is equality of opportunity, "the idea that everyone has an equal chance to achieve wealth, social prestige, and power because the rules of the game, so to speak, are the same for everyone". This concept can be applied to society by saying that no one has a head start. This means that, for any social equality issue dealing with wealth, social prestige, power, or any of that sort, the equality of opportunity standard can defend the idea that everyone had the same start. This views society almost as a game and any of the differences in equality are due to luck and playing the "game" to one's best ability. Conley gives an example of this standard of equality by using a game of Monopoly to describe society. He claims that "Monopoly follows the rules of equality of opportunity" by explaining that everyone had an equal chance when starting the game and any differences were a result of the luck of the dice roll and the skill of the player to make choices to benefit their wealth. Comparing this example to society, the standard of equality of opportunity eliminates inequality because the rules of the games in society are still fair and the same for all; therefore making any existing inequalities in society fair. Lesley A. Jacobs, the author of Pursuing Equal Opportunities: The Theory and Practice of Egalitarian Justice, talks about equality of opportunity and its importance relating to egalitarian justice. Jacobs states that
- at the core of equality of opportunity... is the concept that in competitive procedures designed for the allocation of scarce resources and the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life, those procedures should be governed by criteria that are relevant to the particular goods at stake in the competition and not by irrelevant considerations such as race, religion, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other factors that may hinder some of the competitors’ opportunities at success. (Jacobs, 10).
This concept points out factors like race, gender, class etc. that should not be considered when talking about equality through this notion. Conley also mentions that this standard of equality is at the heart of a bourgeois society, such as a modern capitalist society, or "a society of commerce in which the maximization of profit is the primary business incentive". It was the equal opportunity ideology that civil rights activists adopted in the era of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. This ideology was used by them to argue that Jim Crow laws were incompatible with the standard of equality of opportunity.
Another notion of equality introduced by Conley is equality of condition. Through this framework is the idea that everyone should have an equal starting point. Conley goes back to his example of a game of Monopoly to explain this standard. If the game of four started off with two players both having an advantage of $5,000 dollars to start off with and both already owning hotels and other property while the other two players both did not own any property and both started off with a $5,000 dollar deficit, then from a perspective of the standard of equality of condition, one can argue that the rules of the game "need to be altered in order to compensate for inequalities in the relative starting positions". From this we form policies in order to even equality which in result bring an efficient way to create fairer competition in society. Here is where social engineering comes into play where we change society in order to give an equality of condition to everyone based on race, gender, class, religion etc. when it is made justifiable that the proponents of the society makes it unfair for them.
Sharon E. Kahn, author of Academic Freedom and the Inclusive University, talks about equality of condition in their work as well and how it correlates to freedom of individuals. They claim that in order to have individual freedom there needs to be equality of condition "which requires much more than the elimination of legal barriers: it requires the creation of a level playing field that eliminates structural barriers to opportunity". Her work talks about the academic structure and its problem with equalities and claims that to "ensure equity...we need to recognize that the university structure and its organizational culture have traditionally privileged some and marginalized other; we need to go beyond theoretical concepts of equality by eliminating systemic barriers that hinder the equal participation of members of all groups; we need to create and equality of condition, not merely an equality of opportunity". "Notions of equity, diversity, and inclusiveness begin with a set of premises about individualism, freedom and rights that take as given the existence of deeply rooted inequalities in social structure," therefore in order to have a culture of the inclusive university, it would have to "be based on values of equity; that is, equality of condition" eliminating all systemic barriers that go against equality.
A fourth standard of equality is equality of outcome, which is "a position that argues each player must end up with the same amount regardless of the fairness". This ideology is predominately a Marxist philosophy that is concerned with equal distribution of power and resources rather than the rules of society. In this standard of equality, the idea is that "everyone contributes to society and to the economy according to what they do best.". Under this notion of equality, Conley states that "nobody will earn more power, prestige, and wealth by working harder".
When defining equality of outcome in education, "the goals should not be the liberal one of equality of access but equality of outcome for the median number of each identifiable non-educationally defined group, i.e. the average women, negro, or proletarian or rural dweller should have the same level of educational attainment as the average male, white, suburbanite". The outcome and the benefits from equality from education from this notion of equality promotes that all should have the same outcomes and benefits regardless of race, gender, religion etc. The equality of outcome in Hewitt's point of view is supposed to result in "a comparable range of achievements between a specific disadvantaged group – such as an ethnic minority, women, lone parents and the disabled – and society as a whole".
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