On Unequal and Unjust Demands for Equality

Aristotle, that common sense fellow, defined justice as giving to each his due.  That definition admits of equality in inequality, in obvious ways.  The indulgence we allow a child we deny to a grown man; the familiarity with which we treat the paperboy might offend the elderly woman in church.  Each person is equally deserving of his due; and that will differ according to persons and circumstances.

But our contemporaries are held in fascination by a word, “equality,” as a little bird with the brain of a chickpea flutters helplessly before the cobra.  We do not distinguish between equality and justice, nor do we see that enforcing equality in one respect may imply massive inequality in another.

Suppose we were recruiting players for a football team.  Suppose also that there’s a group of men with some striking physical characteristics, some of whom also want to play.  Call them the Petites.

The Petites are, on average, five to six inches shorter than the typical American man.  But they don’t have the fireplug body, either.  They’re not built low to the ground, like a Marshall Faulk, with a barrel chest and broad shoulders.  Their shoulders are narrow, their bones are light, and their hands are small.


“But maybe the Petites are agile and fast,” you suggest.  No, neither.  Though the Petite men have narrow shoulders, they don’t have narrow hips.  They have wide hips; for their height, noticeably wide.  For running, these more than cancel out any modest advantage they might have in being light.  They also make injuries more common, since the angle between the thigh and the calf is pronounced.

Now, some of the Petite men are pretty fast, and a very few of them are pretty thick-shouldered.  But the combination is never to be found.  Those who are fast (but never among the fastest on the field) pay for it in slightness, and the few who are thick-shouldered (but still weaker than almost everybody else on the field) are slow of foot.

If you scattered the Petite men among an ordinary squad of men trying out for the football team, you would notice them instantly.  They would look silly, like children wearing gear five sizes too big for them.  A single ordinary tackle or block, made by a 250 pound player, would likely crack one of their bones.

What they lack in size and speed and strength and practical dexterity (for their hands are too small to throw the football), do they make up in intangibles, like leadership?  Not at all.  For the men look down on them a little, even while some of them try to protect them, in a gallant display of friendship.  The Petites also have thin high-pitched voices, making them sound a little too childlike for real football.

But the Petites want to play.  So the Powers that Be declare that there must be a certain number of Petites on the squad.  Practice requirements will be adjusted accordingly.  The typical recruit may have to do twenty pull-ups; the Petites will be allowed to hang on the bar for a minute.  The typical recruit may have to do a hundred push-ups, from the toes; the Petite men will do twenty five, and only from the knees.  Each team will have to purchase two different kinds of blocking tackles, one for the ordinary players, and one for the Petites.  The Powers that Be say, “We will find some role for the Petites!”  Most of the Petites, then, are assigned to be third-string cornerbacks and safeties, where their weaknesses will be less exposed.  Indeed, they will still be exposed there, but at least it will mitigate the chance that a Petite will end up crippled or dead.  The Petite safety who trails the wide receiver by ten yards is not going to get pummeled, even if he does give up the touchdown.

Why do the Petites want to join the team?  Who knows?  Money, prestige, self-esteem; does it matter?  That’s their choice, and choice is sovereign.

The Petites demand to be treated equally, and that can be interpreted in several ways.  There should be the same number of Petites as of others on the team.  The number of Petites should reflect exactly their proportion in the population.  An equal percentage of Petites trying out for the team should make the team, as others.  Preparation for the game and the rules of the game should be adjusted so as to allow the coaches cover for selecting Petites, to meet the requirements of one of those other demands for equality.  The definition of a “win” or a “loss” should be altered to reflect the new makeup of the squads.  Special searches around the country should be made, at considerable expense, to find rare Petites who could do something on the field without embarrassing themselves.

It won’t do, simply to say, “We have the wrong equality here.  The Petites should have an equal opportunity to show they can do the job.  They shouldn’t be discriminated against, just because they are Petites.”  That’s nonsense.  The Petite stature is not incidental, like skin color, or irrelevant, like a taste in Italian food.  It is of the essence, given the task.  There’s no point wasting a moment or a cent on it.  We don’t have endless time and a bottomless pit of money and an infinite number of recruiters to examine the Petites who want to try out.

For the Petite, then, to demand equality in any meaningful sense is flatly unjust.  One glance is enough for any sensible recruiter or coach to dismiss him.  If the Petite requires more than that glance, he would be demanding something to which he is not due.  He would be declaring his wishes to be more important than any other consideration—the wishes of the fans, the time of the coaches, the common good of the team, and the desire of the man whose place he would supplant.  In order to secure what he wants, he’d have to establish a tremendous inequality in power, because only a big gun can coerce people to act against their common sense judgments, their natural and obvious good, and their own just claims.

It is unjust to treat people differently when the difference between them is inconsequential or irrelevant.  In a lawsuit between a rich man and a poor man, the poverty of the latter is irrelevant to the matter at hand; the law is not, in that sense, a respecter of persons.  To the poor man, equally as to the rich man, is due a fair treatment under the law.  But the converse may also be true.  When the difference is consequential, even essential, then it may well be unjust to treat people the same.  The person who says, “You must treat me the same way you treated him,” must not end with that claim to equality.  He must show that the claim is just, by showing that in fact the difference between him and the other is inconsequential.  The child cannot claim the reverence due to the old man.  The fireman enters the house to save the child, but not the dog.

Let’s suppose that a man and woman wish to marry, for the tax benefits.  They’re not living together.  They are not even romantically involved.  But they are close friends, and they want to do what they want to do.  They see other men and women getting married, and they want to be treated equally.  They are a bachelor brother and sister.

But this claim to equal treatment is unjust.  It is inequitable; and its enforcement would require the hammer-hand of the state.  Even people who believe the impossible, that a man can marry a man, would say, “This is not what we mean at all!”  Something is missing, something of the essence.  What is that thing?

It’s obvious to me what’s missing.  It’s the same thing missing in the case of a Joe and a Steve.  But that’s not my point, here.  I am making two points.  The first is to demand “equality” in one respect is often to allow tremendous inequality in other respects; the second is that “equality” is not coterminous with justice.  We must not treat A and B indifferently, unless A and B really merit that indifference.  The demand for equality must rest upon a definition of the essence of the things declared equal, and this definition must reflect objective reality.  It can never be the sole property of the declarers, who would then be plaintiff and judge at once.  Nor can it be the property of the State, unless we abandon all notions of justice altogether, and concede that might makes right.  The State must bow to both equalities and inequalities, and so must the individual citizen.  We must give to each his due.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).