Historical Notions of Equality
Equality is an overused term that means different things to different people. The concept has in fact been the subject of philosophical debate for centuries. One of the earliest thinkers to discuss equality was Aristotle (385-322 BC.) His view assumed that human beings are unequal by nature and that some are superior to others in terms of intelligence, virtue, or education. He believed that these natural differences justified distinct roles and statuses in society, such as rulers and subjects, masters and slaves. He also argued that some people are naturally suited for slavery or subservient roles, as they lacked the rational capacity to govern themselves or participate in political life.
Aristotle’s view of equality was challenged by thinkers during what became known as the Enlightenment, from the 17th to the 18th centuries. They rejected the idea that human beings were unequal by nature and that some were born to rule over others. They argued that all human beings possess natural rights to life, liberty, and property, which cannot be taken away or violated by anyone. They also advocated for democracy, humanism, and tolerance, as they believed that people should be free to pursue their own happiness and interests if they did not harm others.
One of the most influential Enlightenment philosophers was John Locke. He introduced the idea that all people were born with a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that their knowledge and personality were shaped by their experiences and education. He also proposed the social contract theory, which stated that people should agree to form a government to protect their natural rights and that they had the right to rebel against a government that failed to do so.
Locke’s view of equality was therefore based on the premise that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth, regardless of their differences in talents, achievements, or backgrounds. He believed that these differences should not affect their rights or opportunities in society if they respected the rights and freedoms of others.
However, as with many concepts that make for interesting intellectual debates, social attitudes and behaviours often lag behind.
Achieving change requires courage, organisation, passion, and commitment. These were certainly required by the campaigners for votes for women, seen as one of the main battlegrounds for equality at the start of the 20th Century.
It is also worth noting that only 58% of the adult male population was eligible to vote before 1918, and troops who had been serving overseas were prevented from voting. This was an influential consideration in the growth of the Labour Party as well as the growth of the suffragette movement.
The struggles lasted until 1918 when some small concessions were made. This was hardly the victory women had hoped for as the vote was only granted to mainly middle class women over 30 who owned property. Younger women, and those from the working class, had to wait until 1928 before they were all given the vote.
It is interesting to note that almost three centuries after the concept of equality as a fundamental human right for everyone became accepted at an intellectual level, many groups continue to face discrimination.
This can be intentional or unintentional, obvious or subtle, individual or institutional. It can result from biases, prejudices, stereotypes, or ignorance. Whatever the causes, it has a huge effect on how people are treated or what outcomes they achieve.
Discrimination has also been used as a weapon by powerful groups to divert attention from the structural problems of the capitalist system and to create divisions among people. It has also been the root cause of wars, genocide, and political systems based on apartheid.
The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement is clear evidence of just how pervasive societal racism still is. It was initially a reaction against American police brutality towards unarmed young black men such as Michael Brown in 2014 and George Floyd in 2020.
In the UK there is evidence of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police first highlighted by Macpherson in 1999, following the shameful investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It is a term that captures so well the unwitting prejudice and plain racial stereotyping afflicting parts of British society, and the term was repeated in the more recent report by Louise Casey in 2022
As a result, rather than focusing on promoting equality, legislation and policies have been developed that supposedly guard against the worst excesses of prejudice.
The UK Equality Act 2010, which replaced earlier separate legislation and regulations from the 1970s, makes it illegal to discriminate against someone with what are described as ‘protected characteristics’ that include race, religion, disability, sexuality, sex, maternity, and gender reassignment.
Interestingly, one ‘characteristic’ that is not covered in the Act is social class, and yet this is a major detrimental factor in life outcomes today. We may only guess at the reasons for its omission.
So, over 100 years after the suffragettes’ bitterly fought campaign, and with nearly 50 years of legislation and workplace policies of varying standards, there is still a huge mountain to climb.
Many organisations struggle to implement their policies effectively, and in some cases they are no more than tick-box exercises. As indicated by recent reports into the Met and the London Fire Brigade, creating inclusive cultures that value diversity and respect human rights seems further away than ever.
Some who believe that it is not possible for overt discrimination to continue to exist believe that unconscious or cognitive bias is one of the reasons why progress has been so slow.
The challenges cannot be underestimated. Hundreds of years of entrenched social attitudes that have helped to build societies based on control and hierarchy are hard to shift.
We can campaign, we can legislate, and we can even change behaviours to some extent. However, changing deep-rooted social attitudes, supported by an unequal social order that has systemic inequality at its heart, is an extremely hard nut to crack. We cannot, or must not, give up.