The equality problem can be summarised in the following question:

When should the interests of two beings be weighed equally?

I think this question is important because it has social and political ramifications and touches on things like racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of discrimination.

By looking at our societies, it seems that when it comes to humans the answer would be something along the lines of:

The interests of two humans are weighed equally when there are no other relevant criteria.

What does the above answer mean? It means that other things being equal, the interests of two humans are weighed equally. What does “other things being equal” mean? It refers to any other facts that might shift the balance towards one of the two interests.

Situation 1

Two people arrive to the hospital and request medical assistance. The hospital can only attend one patient and so, it needs to decide which patient should be cared first. Hospitals can be said to be interested in keeping alive as many people as possible. This means that the decision making of the hospital is based on the goal of reducing the number of deceased people. And we know that serious injuries are more likely to cause death in the short term than minor injuries. This implies that the hospital will prioritise the interest of the patient with the most serious injury over the interest of the patient with the less serious injury.

Other things not being equal, the interests of two beings are not weighed equally.

– Beginning: Optional reading-

Just like in situation 1, when an understaffed police station is asked for resources from two different parties, there is some decision making going on in order to decide whether/which of the parties’ interests should be prioritised. Ideally, interests would always be weighed equally, but in our physical world of finite resources, prioritising different interests (i.e. not giving the equal consideration) is often needed.

The rationale used for rejecting forms of discrimination like racism and sexism are based on the idea that the prioritising is not needed. One thing worth mentioning is that priorities are based on some assumptions. So in the case of the hospital, the priorities were based on a goal of reducing the number of deceased people and in the case of the police station, the priorities were based on a goal of giving more help to those who need it most and less help to those who need it less. In other words, we give unequal treatment to try to generate an equal state of affairs. It is a bit like the metaphor of adding wherever is needed and removing whenever is not needed to accomplish the goal of removing all the irregularities and achieving a flat ground.

How does this work for forms of discrimination like racism and sexism? A sexist person considers sex a relevant factor when examining the interests of two beings (who happen to belong to different sexes) when sex cannot be rationally argued to be a relevant factor. So when it comes to choosing two candidates for a job where sex is not relevant (for example, software engineering), a sexist person would still factor sex as a relevant factor. The argument against factoring sex here is that the sex of the person is not related to the person’s performance in a job where the only thing that matters is your performance as software engineer .

On the other hand, there could be a case where sexual discrimination is rationally supported. A female patient requests a female doctor on an assumption like the following:  she does not feel comfortable about the possibility of having to show her intimate parts to a male doctor. The core assumption is that nakedness is a very personal matter and we have as a goal that the wishes of the interested person should be granted whenever it is possible.

-End: Optional reading-

So the issue here is what qualifies as “relevant factors”. The relevant factors are those that maximise the goal held by the decision maker.

Let us bring the case of software engineer job that discriminates against women. Rather than calling it sexist, the question to be asked would be: what are the goals of the decision maker? Is it to have a software engineer or to have a male software engineer? If the goal was the former, the decision maker could be called sexist, otherwise it could not. Why? Because as we said, the interests of two parties are weighed equally when there are no goal-maximising factors.

Surely, someone could say that the goal of keeping a male-only company is sexist, but it is not. It does indeed differentiate on the basis of sex but it does not make judgements about the capabilities of the differentiated person. A case of discrimination would be the case where the decision maker is faced with two applications by a man and a woman for a job that only requires communication skills yet the decision maker prioritises one sex over the other. That is discrimination.

The solution to the problem of equality is establishing the nature of the goal. Once the goal is clearly defined, any possible relevant factors can be pinpointed and a fair decision making can be carried out (or an unfair decision making can be pointed out).