(drawing by Bill Mauldin)
Here’s a short overview of different types of equality (I’ll come back to this in future posts):
1. Equality before the law
This concept is linked to the concept of non-discrimination. Laws must be equal for everybody and should not discriminate between people. Everyone should be protected and punished by the law in the same manner. The law is equal for all and all are equal for the law. The law cannot favor or harm a particular group or person. It can only favor or harm everybody in the same way. It has to be neutral with regard to persons. The legislator cannot make a law against or in favor of a particular person or group. A law should never apply to a limited group of people and should never treat people in different ways. It should by definition, be general. The same laws apply to everybody in the same way, including the legislator.
This neutrality is a requirement for both the content and the application of a law. A neutral law can still be applied in a selective way. Breaches of the law can be prosecuted or punished in an unequal and discriminatory way (take for example, the demography of death row in the US). That is also why the testimony of all persons is counted with the same weight. If that would not be the case, the equal application of the law would be impossible.
2. Equal human rights
This is also linked to non-discrimination. Every human being has equal rights, wherever he or she lives, whether he or she believes in a God or not, is rich or poor, or whatever. Human rights are rights of all people at all times. If everybody has equal rights and if, as a consequence, nobody should be discriminated against in the use of his or her rights, then human rights are universal. It is unacceptable that some people enjoy more human rights than others, or enjoy some human rights more than other people enjoy them.
3. Material equality, equality of income or wealth
4. Political equality
This is expressed in the democratic rule of “one man, one vote” designed to give all citizens equal influence. Political participation is an equal right. Everybody has the same right to participate and to rule, irrespective of class, status, race etc. Many social distinctions are politically irrelevant. Everybody has one vote and is politically equivalent. Every vote is as important as the next one, no matter whose vote it is. Of course, political equality can be undone by economic inequality and inequality of wealth. That is why a democracy should also protect a certain kind of material equality.
5. Equal opportunity
See this post. Equality of opportunity is often contrasted with equality of outcome or condition, i.e. the equality of income and wealth.
Beside these distinctions, others are also often used: equality of procedure, absolute vs relative equality, inequality for equality (affirmative action)…