Social equality is a legal and philosophical concept. It stems from the principle of equality, which appears at the head of the declarations of human rights (universal declaration of human rights of 1948). This has two main aspects: civil equality, that is to say equality before the law; social equality, that is to say the search for equal social rights.
The application of “human rights and duties” to individuals, peoples and all human communities included in their concrete framework of life is supposed to guarantee if not improve their condition from the point of view of social equality.
Difficulty of a definition
A polysemic and protean concept
Initially, according to the distinction made by Aristotle, equality consists of the correct distinction of the shares relative to a criterion (proportional equality) or to pure mathematical equality.
But the multiplicity of objects (individuals and situations) to which it applies makes the concept of “social equality” as diverse and multifaceted as the objects concerned. Faced with the impossibility of a simple theoretical definition, the concept is more relevant in the pragmatic framework of an evaluation to be carried out along different axes:
- geographical: is social equality conceivable without reference to a territory, to a human society, to the existence of links of solidarity or responsibility?
- temporal: is social equality appreciated in the moment or should it be projected into the future? Does the concept of intergenerational equality have a meaning (reference to the principles of sustainable development);
- legal: social equality, founded by the necessary and formal principles of law, does it not quickly lead to prolong and exceed them in favor of the examination of the guarantee and the exercise of real rights?
- political: social equality in a democracy presupposes the right to vote, freedom of expression, but also the effective possibility of having access to information and the free exercise of these rights. What about access to education, care, culture? Closed societies from this point of view are unequal societies;
- economic: are equality of resources, strict egalitarianism necessary to guarantee social justice? Is there a minimum to be taken into account below which the dignity, merit or potential of people is not recognized? Even if for many this equality appears to be an impossible ideal, in the absence of equality of conditions, should we be satisfied with equal opportunities?
- anthropological: Ronald Dworkin, in his experience with seashells, comes to the conclusion that the normative principle to aim for is “equal consideration of each person”.
The following episodes illustrate the fight for this application on various fronts:
- the French Revolution of 1789 for the abolition of privileges;
- the Bandoeng Conference and other anti-colonialist movements calling for a better sharing of the world than that achieved between the great powers at the Yalta Conference;
- the United Nations Organization (UN) which – through its specialized agencies – intends to promote a more balanced and more concrete dialogue and cooperation between its members;
- the call for the establishment of equal opportunities appeals to the idea that people should be in the same conditions to start life (with concrete initiatives such as that of Muhammad Yunus in favor of micro-credit ).
Vision and interpretations of social equality
Plato and the Ideal City
The reflection on justice in the soul and in politics is central to all of Plato’s philosophy. The real task of the philosopher is to find out what laws should be given to the City to make it conform to justice. According to Henri Denis: “Man is subject to error and – in many ways – imperfections have entered social organization: authority has been badly exercised, the spirit of indiscipline has developed. and above all because of the disastrous proximity of the sea, commerce was born and engendered in souls a disposition to withdraw constantly and to be in bad faith. (…) Plato insists on the need to establish equality of fortunes; if there is a class of non-owners, they will be a perpetual source of revolution. (…) We must abandon the hope of reforming a City where wealth inequality reigns”.
“The essential goal according to Plato is to establish friendship between all the citizens of the City. The real means is the absolute community of goods, women and children, because – among friends – everything is common. (…)”But the philosopher adds that “this program is undoubtedly too ambitious and it needs to come up with other solutions, no doubt less perfect but easier to achieve”.
“This more accessible means is to establish friendship between citizens, it is to attribute to them all equal properties and to oblige them all to lead an identically frugal life. (…) And since it is possible despite everything that inequalities will creep in, it will be necessary to introduce a tax system which constantly tends to restore economic equality and in any case, as soon as a family enjoys a higher fortune quadruple the value of the “family lot”, the supplement will be confiscated “.
Jeremy Bentham and the measurement of social equality
The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham considers that to achieve social equality it is already necessary to be able to measure it: the measure of utility makes it possible to quantify the level of well-being. This measure confers several advantages:
- possibility of making rational decisions;
- creation of a standard for measuring the social condition of a society;
- possibility of finding the society which provides “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
Equality and social justice according to John Rawls
John Rawls, in Theory of Justice imagines a society in which each citizen is totally unaware of the place he is going to occupy. Then the citizen would come to choose two principles:
- first of all to live in a society which protects our freedoms with the same system of freedoms for all;
- then to live in a society which maximizes the well-being of the less fortunate. Inequalities must be attached to functions open to all under conditions of equal opportunities.
The problems of this theory are:
- social equality is reduced to utility while happiness seems to be a concept difficult to define in itself;
- private property and the market are supposed to be able to generate wealth and ensure the efficient allocation of goods.