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.