Difference and Equality

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” —The Declaration of Independence.

I’m sure Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence recognized individual differences.

Men and women are, on average, different, but they are equal if there is no discrimination based on sex in our educational, legal, and political institutions.

Equality is about treatment of individuals in law and policy. Equal treatment rests on the moral claim that individuals, whatever their differences, are not to be treated unfairly. This is a justice claim.

It’s time again to remind people that equality and sameness are therefore not synonymous. Otherwise, we cannot determine when a standard presumed to apply equally is unjust.

Consider the ability of a wheelchair bound man to enter a building to vote. Is there a ramp? No? Then difference results in an inequality. That is unfair. Yes? Then he is different from but equal to a man who is not wheelchair bound. That is fair.

Life can be fair (just) for citizens if the government considers individual differences in light of the principle of equal treatment across our educational, legal, and political institutions.

Civics education and social studies should be devoted to helping citizens understand this foundational—and humanist—principle of liberal secular civilization.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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