Essay:The Fallacy of Equality

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The Fallacy of Equality[edit]

A premised argument for equality can be formulated in the following manner:

P1: All identical things can be treated as equal.
P2: A is identical to B.
C1: A can be treated as equal to B as they are identical.

This is a logical argument if the specified A’s are identical to the specified B’s. Consider, for example A = 4 and B = 2 + 2. Anywhere in a mathematical equation where one sees 4, one can substitute it for (2 + 2) and the mathematical result will be the same. Although it is not perfect due to relativity, another example would be A = Force and B = Mass x Acceleration. Provided one doesn’t need to use super-precise calculations, using Newtonian mechanics and treating force as mass times acceleration or vice versa works when one is constructing a building. A third example would be A = Obtain and B = Acquire.

The problem with “equality” as it is used in modern politics is that the first premise, A = B, doesn’t hold true when one is talking about people. A blind person is not identical to someone who has 20-20 vision. A person who requires a wheel chair is not identical to someone who runs marathons each week. Someone with an IQ of 20 is not identical to someone who works as a string theorist. A person who is 6 foot 11 is not identical to someone who is 3 foot 7. Someone who is 65 is not identical to someone who is 6. And so on. If A is not identical to B, then the above argument cannot be used to support the conclusion that A’s should be treated equally to B’s. Instead the following is the argument that is being used.

P1: All unlike things can be treated as equal.
P2: A is unlike B.
C1: A can be treated as equal to B as they are unlike.

This is a fallacious argument. A = 3 + 5 should not be treated equally as B = 4 because doing so results in a mathematical error. A = Force should not be treated equally as B = Mass x Acceleration x Velocity (the formula for power). A = Obtain should not be treated equally as B = Lose. Given its obvious shortcomings, the above argument does not provide support for the conclusion that people should be treated equally.

The idea that people who are not equal should be treated equally also opposes consequential theories of justice such as utilitarianism. A premised argument that is consistent with utilitarianism can be stated as follows.

P1: All unlike things can be treated as unequal.
P2: A is unlike B.
C1: A can be treated as unequal to B as they are unlike.

That is a logical argument that works perfectly well in the fields of mathematics and physics. Unfortunately, “unequal” is a broad category which means that it is open to interpretation and some of these interpretations have been historically evil when applied to people. For example, it was argued that people with darker skin tones were unlike people with people with lighter skin tones and therefore they were to be treated unequally by enslaving them. Most likely due to such historical reasons, it has become customary to treat people “as if they were identical” so they can be treated "equally" even though objectively they are not identical. While this is a decent rule of thumb, one encounters logical problems if one treats equality as a rule that is universally true with things that are unlike. Consider, for example, a teacher that is told by his or her school board to both “accommodate” the needs of one’s students and to treat them as equals. How is this teacher supposed to do both? Either they can treat their students as unique individuals and accommodate their needs by treating them unequally when compared to the other students or they can treat each student equally as if they all had the same needs. It is logically inconsistent to expect a teacher to both accommodate (treat students unequally) and to treat students equally.

Often times, what people mean when they say that people should be treated “equally” is that people should be treated “equitably”. Equity occurs when one treats a person justly or fairly. Unlike with the concept of equality, asking a teacher to accommodate a student’s needs is logically consistent with the concept of equity. The drawback is that equity requires a definition for justice and both the exact nature of this definition and the ethical system that should underlie it are matters of intense scholarly and societal debate.

One of the problematic consequences of using the equality rule of thumb as a universally true rule[note 1] for people who are unlike has been the rape of women by male prison guards. The United Nations, noticing the problem, encourages nations to implement Rule 53 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which states "women prisoners shall be attended and supervised only by women officers."[1] Due to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 largely in response to Jim Crow laws and other unjustified forms of discrimination in the American south, the United States went the other direction and advocated equality as a legal principle. According to Amnesty International USA,

“The authorities of the United States have argued that anti-discriminatory employment laws in the US mean that they cannot refuse to employ male guards in women prisons. The Supreme Court has denied the claim that women prisoners should be supervised only by women officers, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity statute.” (Amnesty International USA, 2001 p-18).[2]

The Ninth Circuit concurs.[3] The problem with this logic is that you can't treat unlikes as identicals because sometimes their differences matter. Such is the case with male guards in female prisons. Males and females are different in regards to their psychosexual behaviors, and if you put males in a position of power over women in places like prisons, then you are asking for trouble. The obvious solution to such problems would be to acknowledge that males and females are unlike, not identical, as both the United Nations and Amnesty International have done, but providing legal precedent for this belief would undermine efforts by feminists and other such groups who promote “equality”. Thus many of the groups who would otherwise be in favor of policies that protect women from prison rape are philosophically opposed to banning male guards as such policies would expose their logically unfounded position of equality of unlikes to legal challenges.

There is another way of using equality in regards to people that has much more logical merit. It can be described by the following premises.

P1: All As are to be treated equally by B.
P2: X is an A.
C1: X is to be treated equally by B.

A good example of this is the law. In this scenario, A = Human, B = the law, and person X is a human who is being tried by the court.

Another example would be wages. A = Person who worked C number of hours, B = wage per hour, and X = a person who worked C number of hours.

A third example would be something like an income tax code. A = people with an adjusted gross income equal to C. B = the amount of tax one owes based upon C income, and X is someone who has an adjusted gross income of C.

In these scenarios, one is not making the illogical assumption that all humans are identical. Rather one is arguing that a person is a human and all humans should be treated equally by certain laws, social responsibilities such as paying taxes, or are entitled to be treated equally by certain legal protections such as their right to due process. In other words, one can logically argue that there are certain things that all humans should be treated equally by even though not all humans are equal. What precisely these laws, tax codes, and legal protections should be is highly debatable. This syllogism is further explored on the equality page.

A related syllogism is as follows.

P1: All As (A1, A2, A3, A4...) are to be treated equally by B (B1 for A1, B2 for A2, B3 for A3, B4 for A4...).
P2: X is an A1.
C1: X is to be treated equally by B1.

Such a syllogism can take into account the fact that one needs to have different laws for different groups of people (such as children, policeman and diplomats).

Types of Fallacies Associated With Equality[edit]

The concept of equality is a good way of illustrating how people can be fallacious with their reasoning as it is not confined to any one group of fallacies. The following are fallacies that are associated with it.

Equivalence Fallacy - Assuming unlike people are equal is an equivalence fallacy. Blind people are not identical to people with 20/20 vision, for example, and saying that they are equal literally means that they are identical. This does not mean that they cannot be treated equally by the law or public services as complex laws and services can accommodate for differences among people such as providing Braille library books.

Accident fallacy - Assuming ‘treating unlike people equally’ should be applied in all circumstances is an accident fallacy as there are exceptions to this rule of thumb such as women’s prisons and teaching children. Assuming ‘treating people equitably’ should be applied in all circumstances is not an accident fallacy as there are theories of justice that can accommodate differences in people such as utilitarianism.

Political correctness fallacy - This is a subset of the equivalence fallacy. Given that people are not equal, it is fallacious to believe that people are equally wise. One doesn’t do this in science and for good reason. Most people don’t have the requisite intelligence or background to understand the more complicated scientific issues and therefore the more logically intelligent individuals of our society are preferentially selected by science. The same principle holds true for political issues. There are more effective and efficient ways of running child welfare services, for example, and only certain people know what these ways are. And yet we are supposed to believe that the many, who have no such wisdom, are supposed to decide how child welfare services are to be run? That is a fallacy as was pointed out by the Ancient Greek philosophers. It also happens to be a fallacy that democracy is predicated upon.

Self-Evident truth fallacy - Assuming as the author of the Declaration of Independence did that all men are created equal is a fallacy of equivalence and it is hardly self-evident.[note 2] They may all have certain rights because they are human, but that doesn't mean that they are "created" equal as that implies that they are identicals. Now, on the other hand, assuming that society should remove social inequities in things like wealth has more merit, though it is still difficult to make a claim of self-evidence as some of the rich are "selves" who will almost certainly disagree with that assertion.

Fallacy of ambiguity – The ambiguity fallacy occurs when a conclusion is drawn from premises that are unclear and this commonly occurs with the word equality. For example, let us say a group of feminists argue for equal pay for x women and y men and the group of y men worked 5 hours longer on average per week than the group of x women. Does equal pay mean paying men and women equally based upon the number of hours worked or does it mean paying them equally regardless of the numbers of hours worked? The argument is ambiguous. Another example would be health insurance. Let us say that the same feminists argue that men and women should be treated equally in regards to health insurance. Does this mean that 20-year-old women should pay an equal amount of money for health insurance as 20-year-old men? Or does it mean that they both should be treated equally based upon their actuarial risk in which case the 20-year-old men would be paying less money? Simply saying people should be treated equally without specifying what that means results in a fallacy of ambiguity.

Loaded language fallacy - Due to historical instances where people have been treated unfairly, many people have come to the conclusion that treating people unequally should be seen as a pejorative. This is not a logical conclusion as people like doctors and teachers are ethically required to treat people unequally in order to treat their diseases and accommodate their needs. To say “Well that is not what I meant when I said people shouldn’t be treated unequally.” is another example of the ambiguity fallacy mentioned earlier. Most of the time, the loaded language fallacy occurs when equality is being used in a positive sense. For example, one could argue “People with really low IQs deserve to be given educational opportunities equal to those with people with high IQs.” Beyond the issue as to whether or not that is even possible is the problem that one is using the emotive word “equal” as the sole basis for the argument. While it is logical to argue that there are certain things “being human” entitles one to such as an education, arguing that different types of people are entitled to be treated equally in education is a fallacy of loaded language, of accident, and of ambiguity. On the other hand, arguing to remove social inequality is not a loaded language fallacy as it is more of a description of a philosophical position called egalitarianism, albeit a philosophical position that needs to be clarified in order to not be ambiguous.

Conditional fallacy – If one is arguing in the format P1- All humans are to be treated equally by B, P2 – person X is a human, C1 - therefore person X is to be treated equally by B, then one is not necessarily committing a fallacy. Laws and other forms of social conduct utilize this type of logical argument.

See also[edit]



External links[edit]

The previous explanation was a brief synopsis of the premises underlying the equality issue. If one is wishing a more in-depth analysis, the following are a couple of sites that address the issue philosophically.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The International Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Institute for the Study of Complex Systems


  1. This is an example of an accident fallacy.
  2. I suspect that it was Thomas Paine. Here is an interesting article on the subject.