Christianity and Equality 3: The Flowchart

Everyone wants justice and equality as surely as everyone wants peace. But whether or not the equality, the justice, or the peace is desirable depends considerably on what kind of equality, justice, or peace one hopes to achieve. And there’s a big problem facing anyone thinking about—much less striving for—justice and equality: confusion.

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Confusion of terms. Confusion of ideas. Confusion. In the following flowchart I try to trace different paths through the labyrinth of equality and justice. I simplify distinctions, remove some possible detours, and generally resist the temptation to make caveats at every turn because, if I did so, it would be even more confusing than it already is.

Let’s walk through the labyrinth together. Be sure to look at the map! First, in green text, we have four options for what I’ll call the setting of justice: judicial, familial, economic, and political. What we think about equality and justice can vary depending upon the context.

If you are a judge in a courtroom, you must uphold the rule of law. Desert, not socioeconomic status, should determine the outcome of the case. The question is not whether a man is poor but whether his cause is just. Judge with impartiality! That’s the imperative. The Bible supports this formal equality: Exodus 23, for example, says neither to “pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit” nor to “be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

By contrast, if the setting is a family, equality and justice play different roles. Far from thinking someone is doing injury, harm, or an injustice by preferring one child to another, we expect and approve of preferential love in the context of families. If a man loved every child as much as his own, it would not only be socially awkward, it would be harmful to his own children—and perhaps to other children as well.

Finally, we can talk about justice and equality in the marketplace and in politics. 

Four Choices.png

These four terms may describe actual settings, or they may serve as placeholders for your thinking about the situation. For example, disciplining a child may be considered judicial even though the relationship is familial.

Let’s talk about the market first. Most people think we should have some kind of equal opportunity in employment, but we disagree strongly about what we mean by that phrase. 

Minimally, most people accept careers open to talents (COT). The most qualified applicant at the moment of hiring should get the job. True, people don’t have the same prospects for success (some had caring parents who could afford expensive tutoring, others went to horrible schools, etc.), but that doesn’t matter. We can’t, or shouldn’t, correct for such things. We should just give the job to the best qualified person, regardless.

If you think justice demands more—that equally talented and ambitious people from different socioeconomic backgrounds should have the same prospects for success—then you believe in fair equality of opportunity (FEO). We should assist the economically unfortunate and give them a better chance for success than they would have on their own.


Perhaps you think even more is required. If you think justice demands correcting for bad luck (the philosophical term—I don’t believe in luck), like a disability, then you believe in a level playing field (LPF). You think we should give people not simply assistance for opportunity but also access in spite of their disabilities. 

Some think even more is required. Let’s say that, in addition to correcting for bad luck, you think we should correct for bad choices. If so, then you believe in equality of opportunity for welfare (EOW). 

That’s all very confusing, isn’t it? It is, precisely because our intuitions about justice and equality are so confusing.

Let’s think about concrete cases. If someone commits murder, but happens to be wheelchair bound, most people don’t think that being in a wheelchair acquits one of murder. Equality in the courtroom requires impartiality. Conversely, if the most qualified candidate for a job is in a wheelchair, most people think that justice demands giving that person the job over lesser qualified applicants. That sounds like careers open to talents (COT).

But what if being in a wheelchair makes the applicant’s ability to do the job slightly more difficult, or less efficient? What if the person was born with the disability? What if he became disabled though his own negligence? We have considerably less agreement about these different cases, and it makes figuring out what is just and unjust more difficult.

That’s all very confusing, isn’t it? It is, precisely because our intuitions about justice and equality are so confusing.

Perhaps the market is an insufficient guide, or an inadequate metaphor, for our thinking about equality and justice. Maybe we need politics. That’s another main branch on our flowchart.


The first question in this line of reasoning is whether or not inequalities are appropriate or permissible. Perhaps one’s intuitions go strongly in one direction or another—equality always or equality never. But, as with so many things in life, most of us would say it all depends. If someone gives me ten candy bars before I teach a class of ten students (without further instructions), my first inclination would be to offer one candy bar to each student—that is, equality of outcome (EOO).

But that’s an unusual case. We usually tolerate, and even expect, some inequalities. We expect a heart surgeon to make more money than a general practitioner, all things considered, because heart surgery requires more expertise and training—and a much more demanding schedule.

We can ask, though, whether these inequalities should benefit the least advantaged. If we think they should, we endorse the difference principle (DP). The Occupy Wall Street protestors may have been chanting the difference principle without knowing it: The top one percent can have lots of money, but they can’t have so much money if it doesn’t help the down and out. 

Photo by  Ashley Batz  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Not everyone accepts the difference principle. Indeed, you can reject it and still think we have a duty to help our fellow citizens. If you think there’s a threshold above which all citizens should be, you endorse sufficientarianism. If you think priority should be given to the least fortunate—that there’s a value to lifting people above a mere minimum threshold—then you embrace prioritarianism. 

Of course, there are other options. You could think that inequalities are appropriate and that poor people should starve. Or you could think that everyone should make the same salary and be required to work roughly the same kinds of jobs. You could think these things, but you’d be very alone in your thoughts. So they are excluded from the flowchart.

Hopefully this flowchart clarifies the issues to some degree. In future posts, I’ll explore two different issues. First, Christians disagree about what kind of relationship God has with the world: Is it judicial? Familial? Communal? Second, depending upon what kind of justice you think God should uphold, you will have very different thoughts—some of them anti-Christian thoughts—about providence and free will, sin and salvation, and heaven and hell.

Until then, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.