Justice is the primary virtue of any society, without which no other virtue can strive or thrive. Justice concerns primarily with two aspects - rectification (of acts against established norms) and distribution (of values, offices, resources, privileges etc)
It is with respect to the distributive justice, that the concept of equality gains significance. Distributive justice in essence is deepening of equality. But the question that eludes speculation is “Equality of what ?”
Liberals and market fundamentalists prescribe equality of opportunity. It is based on the assumption that distribution must take place in accordance with the talents a man possesses. Equal opportunity must be given to everyone to exploit their talents if they have any. Mostly, this logic is supported by the relatively well-off people with better socio-economic background.
This liberal assumption of equality of opportunity was criticised by socialists. Socialists contend that equality of opportunity provides only nominal equality and ultimately leads to a division of society on the basis of “haves” and “have-nots”. They in turn propose equality of outcomes. That is, equal rewards irrespective of the talents, merits or hard-work. This, they consider as the substantive model of equality. The relatively worse off section of the society are vociferous supporters of this train of thought.
Both these models are flawed. While the former can be beneficial or detrimental based on the accident of birth. Regardless of the talents, the fact is lost to no one that being born in a certain type of family or environment has a lasting impact on one’s development. The latter, on its part can be interpreted as a utopia. Basically, it kills individual initiative, enterprise and imagination as there is no incentive for talent or merit.
To tide over these contradictions, what is being proposed is equity. Equity corresponds to equality with fairness. That is providing maximum equal liberty along with fair equality of opportunity and assistance for the least advantaged section. This assistance comes in the form of redistribution effected through progressive taxations and affirmative action through reservations and quotas.
However, even this prescription is criticised for multiple reasons. For not all societies value liberty. Some criticise the redistribution part considering it as a undue interference in man’s (woman’s and a transgender’s afterall we are talking equality) life, liberty and property.
Still other models of equality focus on providing an initial level playing field of resources and then leaving the man responsible for the outcomes. Better still, some favour the equality of capabilities. That is making people equal in terms of capabilities. For instance, what use will a computer (if provided as an initial resource) be to a person who doesn’t know how to use it ?
Thus, it is fair to say that equality is essentially a contested concept. There is no shared understanding of equality. Another peculiar feature of equality is that any attempt at deepening equality in one aspect gives rise to inequality in another. The search for equality thus presents an arduous conundrum whose resolution is not yet on the horizon.