Is Equality the Highest Good?

While commentators are picking over the implications of yesterday’s European Court of Human Rights judgement (which you can read in full here), I’d like to think about the role of equality in Christian thought and practice. It’s a question I’ve often addressed before, but it’s fraught with misunderstanding and difficulty.

As a woman, I’m well aware of some of the many forms of inequality/discrimination which exist even in the west. Happily, some of those which greatly troubled me in my youth have now disappeared or been legislated out of existence. That is the positive power of law at work. Attitudes are harder to change. Even now, I have sometimes to bite my tongue off when confronted with some of the more patronising remarks of my fellow human beings. What I find increasingly difficult, however, is the assumption that equality is the greatest social good, and I think Christians need to think about that very seriously indeed

When challenged, very few people are actually able to define what they mean by equality although most will make a valiant effort to do so. Could it be that, deep down, we have difficulty with the concept? St Benedict prescribed that the abbot ‘should not love one more than another unless he find him better in good works or obedience’ (RB 2.16) but rather ‘show the same love to all’ (RB 2.22, looking back to Romans 2.11). On the whole, that rather nuanced understanding of equality is the one I find to be operative in society, although we might substitute other qualities for good works and obedience. I am not as tall, strong, beautiful or wise as many of the people I know. Morally, I am not as good. Spiritually, I’m just glad I’m not even worse than I am. But I still expect that I will be treated with civility and, on the whole, I’d say I am treated better than I deserve. Where does equality come into this? Is it trumped by civility or whatever you would like to call that rubbing along together for which I use the word as shorthand?

In practical terms, whether society is Christian or not, I think it still takes many of its underlying values from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but the nature of those values, or rather, the hierarchy of those values, seems to be undergoing a sea-change. Why now the emphasis on equality? What does equality add or subtract? As I have said many times, I am uneasy about the way in which equality legislation is making it more difficult for Christians to express their Christian beliefs outside their homes and churches (and sometimes even inside). We may believe what we like in private, but to act in accordance with those beliefs in the public sphere is increasingly challenged. Do we believe that equality is the highest good? How, as Christians, do we fulfil our duty to be good citizens? What is the role of religion in society?

Note: in writing the above, I have deliberately not cited any scriptural texts or alluded to any of the Church’s teaching documents. I’m hoping for some thoughtful responses, to take the question further. I know many of the readers of this blog are not Christian but will have something useful to contribute.

The excellent Law & Religion blog has now posted some thoughts on the ECHR’s judgement. I’m particularly interested in the distinction between religion and conscience: see here.


10 thoughts on “Is Equality the Highest Good?”

  1. Thanks for posing this question. I do think that equality is a great social good – and a key aspect of the gospel too. Your question is helpful as it forces me to think through why I hold that view!

    I’d certainly much rather live in a society where men and women, people of different races and sexualities are treated equally and have equal opportunity rather than the alternative. And if we do say go down the route of opposing equality by whose authority do we decide that certain people shoud be denied opportunities because of who they are?

    If we say ‘the Church’s’ or ‘The Bible’s’ authority then we can get into some really nasty situations. Whilst I see a lot of good in the Catholic and Anglican churches (for example) I think the current status of women in those churches is shocking and against the spirit of Christ.

    In addition I don’t buy the narrative that Christians in the UK are not allowed to express their beliefs. I see no evidence of it and have worked on behalf of the church alongside all kinds of secular bodies and never once found there to be an issue. It seems to me to be a line of thought that is pushed by Christians with a particular (usually conservative) agenda to imply that we are persecuted for our faith in this country. This demeans the experience of Christians in other parts of the world who are genuinely persecuted for their faith.

    Every blessing,


  2. Religion and the Christian religion in particular has been used in the past (and to the present day) to justify the unfair, unjust and unequal treatment of people: misogyny, apartheid, slavery… So in many ways we have ourselves to blame for the position we are in. We have squandered the trust that wider society may have had for religion. We are like birds that have soiled our nest and it sticks to us. Society is right to be suspicious of us when we want to treat individuals and classes of people differently to ourselves or others like us. Society will continue to marginalise and restrict the role of religion until we rid ourselves of the taint of the past and present injustices.

  3. Strangely enough, perhaps, equality in the sight of God is the LEAST problematic notion !… (Equality may well be a secularised version of a theological vision, as you suggest.) Again, equality before the Law sets clear parameters. Both, practical applications to one side, address key questions : Equality in the eyes of Whom, in terms of What ? One secular philosopher I read recently struck me as helpful in navigating these potentially choppy waters. He has a lucid little book on a closely allied matter — Michael Rosen, Dignity : Its History and Meaning (Harvard, 2012).

  4. I’d like to think about the role of equality in Christian thought and practice.

    “I’d like to think about the role of equality in Christian thought and practice”

    Sadly the Christian church has a very poor record of this for whatever reasons some members of the Christian Church both as leaders and laity are at this very moment taking advantage of those who are under them lording it up over members of God’s creation this takes place in many forms but child abuse comes to mind.

  5. It seems to me that there never has been and never will be true equality, however it might be defined and which probably has almost as many definitions as there are people prepared to offer a view.

    I think that probably the best we can expect is mutual respect and care for our fellow human beings. That is not to say we should not aspire to achieve some form of equality but it is an unattainable ideal.

  6. This question has got tangled up in my mind with the snow. We’re snowed in here and it is incredibly beautiful though bitterly cold. I’m fortunate to be able to sit in front of a wood burner admiring the scene. In the snow everything looks equally wonderful – the frosted barbed wire as well as the spider web, the garden weeds as well as the precious shrubs. Can’t think beyond this enchantment.

  7. I just wonder whether equality = respect for the dignity of each other? because that is how I see it, although my view isn’t shared by some, even other Christians..

    I suppose that ‘do unto others as you would wish to be done to’ is the basis of equality in secular living, and if we examine the two greatest commandments, I believe that they provide a solid basis for treating each other with respect and dignity, which even an atheist might see some truth.

    If each of us is equally loved and valued by God, should we not be doing the same for each other. That would be true equality.

  8. Thank you for all your comments, which come from various traditions. I shall mull over them before responding — if I do. I think the question I posed is susceptible of many different responses. I try never to comment on the internal affairs of other Churches, for obvious reasons, but I have been fascinated by the way in which the concept of equality has featured recently in Anglican arguments about women in the episcopate and gay marriage. Much to ponder and pray about!

  9. There is much to ponder in the ECtHR judgement – Frank Cranmer has just posted his analysis on our blog – but your considerations of “Is Equality the Highest Good?” explores areas of equality that we lawyers do not normally address.

    The distinction between religion and conscience is certainly an interesting point, and probably one that will be returned to in subsequent judicial considerations. However, in the present case is consideration was restricted to one of the two “joint partly-dissenting judgements”. Nevertheless, as Rosalind English notes on the UK Human Rights blog

    “In these “on the one hand, on the other” fact-dependent judgements, the best place to find the sharp end of Convention interpretation and application is in the dissenting opinions, here provided by Bratza and Björgvinsson in one and De Gaetano and Vučinic in the other.”

    The other item I found of interest was Neil Addison’s analysis of the possible consequences of an appeal. Sometimes a “victory” for one party can have unintended, unwanted consequences on many others.

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