Inequality vs. Favoritism

Inequality is inescapable and morally neutral.  There is no virtue in trying to eradicate it, and it makes no sense to talk of reducing it.

My children were born unequal.  They will remain unequal as they learn, achieve and acquire.  Any efforts to make them equal do harm to all parties involved.  Many people agree that I could never make them equal, but maybe I should try to make them more equal.  Equality is not a more or less concept, it is either or.

3 is not equal to 2.  Neither is 4 equal to 2.  It is meaningless to call one more equal to 2 than the other.  We could say that 3 is more equal to 2, because it is only one whole integer removed from 2.  We could say 4 is more equal to 2 because it is divisible by 2, and only one even number removed.  It is entirely dependent on our frame of reference.  Equality between individuals is as impossible as equality between 2 and 3, and degrees of inequality are entirely subjective; a matter of perception, different for all observers and participants.

It is fruitless to attempt to lessen inequality or increase equality.  In fact, it’s worse than fruitless, it is destructive.  Not only does it produce arbitrary and unpredictable results which disillusion and demotivate the targets, it fuels strife, envy, and limiting one’s potential to the achievements of their perceived betters.

Still, there is something to the desire to create equality.  I would be a terrible parent if I lavished gifts and affirmation, or insult and condemnation, on one child far more than the others.  Not because it would make them more unequal; they are and will always be unequal.  But because my deliberate action of applying the family rules, mores and norms selectively and unfairly would break trust and breed conflict.  I would be engaging in favoritism, either negative or positive.

I will not try to clearly define favoritism, because I think putting it into words actually makes it less understandable than if we stick with our intuitive and tacit understanding of the term.  It is not merely acting differently towards different people.  If I speak Spanish to a Spanish speaking person and English to an English speaking person I am not acting uniformly towards them, but I am not showing favoritism.  Interacting with my unequal children in ways that best resonate with their unique “language” is not favoritism either.  Favoritism is when the spoken or unspoken rules of the house are not consistently applied.

If it is known that doing X chores will get you Y payment, or that treating Dad’s iPad carelessly will result in less access to the iPad, these norms must be applied in a uniform way.  I may communicate the norms and remind my children of them in different ways based on their individuality and inequality, but if one kid gets paid more for the same work, or one gets access to the iPad despite throwing it against the wall and the others don’t, I’m engaging in favoritism that damages everyone.

Uniform application of the family norms will result in inequality, as is inevitable with unequal children.  Some will get more chores done and earn more money.  Some will have a hard time controlling emotions and end up throwing the iPad and losing access to it.  Their nature and choices will produce unequal results.  There is no evil in this.  To aim at equality puts the focus on outcomes; the relative positions resulting from individual actions within an institutional context.  This is a meaningless point of reference, and incredibly poisonous when chosen as the basis by which to judge institutions.  It devolves into, “Anything that rubs me the wrong way, or anything you excel at must be curbed.”  It’s a sentiment that coddles and nurtures our least civil and humane and most barbaric and short-sighted tendencies, usually in the name of the opposite.  It is the uniformity of treatment in relation to the understood rules and norms that matters, not the inequality that results.

The attempt to make my children equal, or more equal, or even treat them equally is futile and destructive.  It is enlightening and beneficial to keep an eye out for favoritism and uniform application of the rules.  I have to check my tendency to selectively apply the mostly unspoken institutional arrangements of the family, and it’s healthy to audit myself in this way.  But the minute I make equality the goal, confusion and frustration take hold, and the rules become more, not less, arbitrary.

Of course society is not a mirror of the family, but the lessons still apply.  To seek equality, or more equality, or less inequality, is an unproductive pursuit, and typically a mask for other frustrations we’re trying to ameliorate where we want the moral sanction of our peers to do so.  Drop it.  Inequality is morally neutral and needn’t be resisted or defended.  Focus on reliable and fair institutions that don’t systematize and reward favoritism, but make it harder and more costly.

%d bloggers like this: