Equality is a topic that is widely discussed and is often used in reference to the number of people under the poverty line in the world and the gender pay gap. The term equality as we know it expresses the intuitive idea that we should all be equal and should work towards ensuring this. Although extremely appealing, when examined closer and reduced to an individual level one can see that we may not crave equality as much as we think we do (I am not saying that this is a good thing).
The first way to uncover this truth is to look at how we measure equality and similarly a ‘good life.’ Often both concepts are measured in financial or material terms with references to excess or deficiency. A familiar example is our ‘typical idea’ of inequality with someone poor having very little money or not enough to eat contrasted with a wealthy or successful person enjoying the opposite.
This focus on material and financial inequality leads us to use the same measurements to determine the notions of success and failure in life. From a young age the image of a ‘successful life’ that we were shown is one of excess where we enjoy luxury material items. The image of sipping the most expensive champagne on our super-yacht sailing off into the sunset is one that many of us have aspired to reach.
Although an extreme example, the key point is that for us to be satisfied and feel as if we are leading a successful life, we require a relatively large amount of material and financial excess, and crucially, to be significantly better off than the rest. Immediately it’s clear that there is a conflict of interest between the ideas of success within a capitalist system and the equality that we frequently claim to want. They cannot coexist.
In this sense, equality represents a threat to our ideas of a ‘good life.’ If an individual enjoying material and financial excess pursues equality relentlessly, they will eventually suffer deficiency. This answers why even those deeply committed to equality could always give more but choose not to with good reason. More concisely, for you to be at the top and enjoy the luxuries of your life others must be beneath you.
Yet can we really blame society for this? Although society does undoubtedly have a substantial impact on this idea of success, it does seem that being better than the majority has its own value. Looking back through history we can see that being one of the best can come with various rewards from fame and riches, to mating rights and greater access to food. Arguably without this desire to be the best and seek the best, the process of evolution would fail, and species would not advance.
However, as society advances the intrinsic value of being the best at anything is slowly lost as one can enjoy the rewards of the position without holding it. It is now possible to lift the heaviest rock without being the strongest person, but instead with the help of machinery.
Moreover, the difference between being the best and the reward for it is further separated through capitalism. In the famous words of Robert Kiyosaki ‘[being the bestselling author and the best author are two completely different titles]’ – I know which one I would rather be. Experts work for the wealthy. Talent and quality no longer guarantee reward. This means that for a ‘good life’ we require the rewards and not necessarily the talents. Once we have the billion-dollar pharmaceutical company nobody is concerned about where we came in our GCSE science class.
This change means that the success we strive for is overwhelmingly measured in material terms and a Lamborghini is only special if most other people don’t have one. Our plight for this success highlights that we are not vociferously opposed to inequality when it benefits us. Instead, it appears that we are not calling for universal equality but have a potentially non-malicious yet strong commitment to inequality. We recognise that it is impossible for us to enjoy ‘the good life’ if everyone is equal.
Ultimately, we only require equality when we are experiencing deficiency compared to the majority. Conversely, we strive to be better than the rest and not the same; this means that when we experience excess, we intend to maintain it. Perhaps this is obvious for many, but this demonstrates that our duty to ourselves is often greater than our duty to humanity. Thus, we must ask again, do we really want equality as much as we claim?
© Durodoluwa Adebayo 2020