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.

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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