Equal of Rights vs. Equality of Results

Last Sunday I wrote about the dignity of the workman in comparison to the dignity of the work done, noting that sometimes the workman dignifies the work by the nobility of his character, but sometimes, a noble work bestows an undeserved dignity upon an unworthy workman.

At the same time, I highlighted the importance of the cultural recognition of the differing degrees of dignity inherent in different kinds of work or different offices, determined by their relation to the common good. Through a correct estimation of the dignity of different kinds of work (and the shameful character of some forms of work) a culture fulfills its educative purpose, forming its members, especially the children, in a right understanding of good and evil, and also good and better. Without this accepted hierarchy of value, all work tends to become meaningless, valued only in monetary terms.

Nevertheless, the recognition of such a hierarchy of value is very much contrary to the deeply ingrained sense of equality that characterizes our contemporary culture. This is further exacerbated because our culture of slogans and memes discourages serious reflection (which takes time and effort), masks the different senses of equality, and thereby allows the inculcation of one particular meaning of equality in a rather deceptive fashion.

Recently, I observed one prominent public figure criticizing another prominent public figure for undermining or denying ‘equal rights under the law’, which is an essential characteristic of American democracy. The critic failed to realize, however, that what was at issue and what is being promoted today under the title of ‘equality’ is usually ‘equality of results’, which is a different matter altogether.

Equal rights under the law actually allows a place for privilege and hierarchy; equality of results does not. Unfortunately, people want results, even if that means bypassing law, which is rather limited.

Let me give examples from contemporary debate that exhibit that dissatisfaction with the limitations of equal rights under the law. One of those rights is the right to face one’s accuser in a jury trial, which is guaranteed by the 5th and 6th amendments of the Bill of Rights.

This poses a problem in rape cases because facing the rapist can re-traumatize the victim. As a result, there have been all sorts of efforts to abridge the requirements of due process in order to protect the victim. This has taken an even more extreme turn on college campuses in the matter of any form of sexual harassment (a vague term and lacking in definition) in which, until a new, and unpopular, Department of Education ruling this year, there was practically no due process at all for a man accused of sexual harassment in a college environment. He might have his good name besmirched, be subject to school discipline, lose a scholarship, or even be expelled from the school, with little possibility of defending himself.

The underlying agenda issue here is not really rape or sexual harassment, but equality of results. The desired result is the advancement of women – who are particularly vulnerable in the matter of rape – to a level of equality with men in the economic and political spheres.

As for rape, the woman would be better protected not by laws that circumvent due process, but a culture of sexual discipline and monogamous, indissoluble marriage (as compared to the sexual promiscuity promoted on every side) that truly honors women as women. Law cannot prevent rape, not even by sidestepping due process, but culture can make it nearly unthinkable.

Something similar is involved with the BLM movement. As far as I can tell blacks in this country have equal rights under the law. Indeed, in some ways they may have more than equal rights since the category of ‘hate crimes’ can make things unequal in favor of blacks. Nevertheless, equal rights under the law is rather limited. The law has to be applied and it might often be applied by people who are in fact racist. There are laws against discrimination, but such laws can never root out all racists. There are various ways also that racists can work around the law.

Nevertheless, if we consider Irish-Americans, who were once a despised ethnic group, referred to as ‘micks’, we can also see that equal rights under the law is sufficient for a group that suffers actual prejudice and discrimination, to establish themselves over time. Between 1860 and 1960, when the Irish-American John F. Kennedy was elected President, the Irish-Americans advanced in American society because of their religious faith, their social cohesion, their strong family life, and their strong work ethic.

Now, however, something like income inequality is seen as irrefutable evidence of ‘systemic racism’. Equal rights under the law is no longer enough. Equal results, equal income, must be achieved. Those who possess wealth are seen as unfairly ‘privileged’.

Really, though, what democracy should be offering is not the illusion of a classless society, but the opportunity to have a voice and the possibility of social and economic advancement. The real difference between a democratic society and a society with rigid class distinctions between nobility and commoner is that the classes are permeable rather than fixed, movement both up and down is easier.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.