What Does Equality Mean?
Being Equal Generally Means Having Equivalent Value or Having Equity; it Depends on Context… it Rarely Means that Two Things are Literally “Exactly the Same” in Every Respect or Should be Treated as Such
The term ‘equal’ can mean ‘identical’, but more-so it describes “equivalence.” For example, social equality describes equity, not “exact the sameness.”
Semantically, this can be expressed as Being Equal Means Having Equivalent Value or Being Equal Means Having Equity.
Rarely would we use the term ‘equal’ to mean “exactly the same.” Consider, the statement “1=1” is fairly tautological and devoid of any real meaning (in most cases).
Consider, E=mc2 doesn’t mean energy is exactly the same as mass, it means energy and mass have equivalent value with the relation momentum considered.
To treat energy and mass as “exactly the same” in all respects is absurd, unjust, and not equitable (nor is always practical); yet to ignore their very real differences is also absurd, unjust, and not equitable (and again, nor is it practical).
And so it is for civil equality, regardless of what a specific ideology demands, generally speaking, civil equality is about respecting natural rights, liberties, and equalities and ensuring equity of opportunity, not exact sameness or total equality of outcome.
Although the terms we are discussing are often semantic, the above logic works as a general metaphor for how to understand equality as a general term in most instances (except that rare instance where we must, for some reason define “1=1”).
TIP: On this page we’ll consider the term equality in a number of ways to show that the concept is ‘equivalent’ across fields, but in the political sense specifically (in that sense where the concept of equality is the most semantic and becomes the most twisted), when people say they want social equality, they generally mean they want ‘equity.’ i.e. they want equitable opportunity under the civil law, because they have equivalent value as humans and citizens, and all humans have natural equality under the natural law. In words, they want ‘true justice’, not “forced superficial equality.” They want ‘true social equality.’ See an essay on social liberty and equality for more on how to understand the terms I just used.
Considering the Semantics of Equity, Equality, and Equivalence
Consider the many definitions of different types of equality, and/or consider this simple example: ‘1+2=3’, ‘1+2’ has equivalence to ‘3’, and it is equal to ‘3’, but it is not the exactly the same as ‘3’.
Now consider this social example, men and women are equal in liberty and right, but man=woman is an incorrect statement. Man is not exactly the same as woman. Their duality does not make them opposite, or “two sides of the same coin”, just two conceptually equal yet physically different entities (like say, mass and energy).
One could say then, as a rule-of-thumb, that when things have “equivalent value”, they deserve “the same degree” of respect despite their differences (regardless of the subject of discussion). Whether it is ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or ‘1+2’ and ‘3’, the very nature of equality is one of recognizing and respecting equivalence, despite differences, and acting accordingly. See a theory of social equality.
The concept is somewhat semantical, broad, and theoretical given the many meanings of equality, but it becomes vital when discussing something like E=mc2 where interpreting equal as “exactly the same” draws the impassioned ire of physicists.
Its also vital when it comes to theories of government, as an equality of liberties, rights, and justice in the civil state is a very different concept than exact sameness of property and assets? When we discuss true equality in the political sense, it makes sense to use the term equity, but certainly the term equality itself already contains this meaning.
Thus, we are left with questions surrounding exactly what equality means in each setting, and thus we are best off understanding the term as a general equivalence rather than exact sameness (as the looser definition is almost always more in-line with what we really mean).
Strict meanings of equality, equivalence, sameness, and identical-ness are best applied to mathematics and related fields (like physics) where things are easily quantifiable and less semantic, but theoretically and philosophically (assuming all systems are generally equatable in some way) we can also apply the concept of equality to morality, laws, governments, societies, ethics, social issues in general, and even more ethereal fields.
The point here is nuanced, but it is meant to shed light on the difference between equality as a general concept and the far more strict type which we can call “exact sameness”.
One point of view about understanding equality and diversity.
FACT: ∼,≈,≃,≅ are all used to denote binary relations concerned with approximate or exact equivalence. In other words, (=) is only one of many ways to express equivalence from a technical standpoint. Although, specific meanings differ by field and context, and they can semantically be interpreted differently, “exact same” is rarely the correct interpretation of the equals sign (=).
FACT: In mathematics (=) means equal in value, not necessarily the same. Social equality is ‘equivalent’ to equality in math, but it’s not “the same”. This generally applies to physics, chemistry, music, logic, economics, ethics, coding, etc.
Examples of Equivalence
- The simplest example of the meaning of equality is the basic math problem ‘1 + 1 = 2’. ‘2’ is not the exactly the same as ‘1 + 1’, but it is equivalent. We can say ‘1=1’, but this is redundant unless we are trying to describe the proprieties of ‘1’.
- Mass and energy are not the “same” but according to mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2), they are equivalent in terms of mass-energy.
How are energy and mass the same? Listen to this as a metaphor for equivalence; it will help you understand relativity too.
- Newton’s Third Law of motion says “for each action is an equal and opposite reaction”, meaning an “opposite” reaction of equal force, but of course not an exact same reaction.
- Men and women have genetic differences, but they are equivalently important for survival of the human race.
- Different races aren’t identical, but as a rational, and arguably empirical, ideal in America, we believe that all humans are created equal.
TIP: Things tend to be self-similar and equivalent, but not opposite, in nature. Nature is complex and so is language, when we say things are equal we often are expressing a complex idea, not the simple idea of exact sameness.
FACT: Every snowflake is different, but each snowflake is intrinsically equivalent. If a snow flake melts, or if that melted flake freezes, or if it boils, it’s still essentially the same… but not exactly. The droplet and the flake have equivalence, despite the form shift of the substance.
This children’s cartoon teaching equivalent fractions expresses many of the ways in which equality works.
NOTE: Talking about concepts like “respect”, “value”, and “bias” in terms of social interaction are inherently theoretical, so keep that in mind as we continue. We are striving for truth, not claiming we have found absolute truth. Feel free to comment with input below.
Equivalent Value and Respect
When we consider something as “equal”, we consider it to have equal value. When two things have equal value it is proper to show them equal respect.
We realize that all things are different (not identical) on some level, and we don’t treat every equal thing exactly the same in all instances, but at a core level, it is correct to treat all things with equivalent value with equivalent respect. In common language we call can call this “the same” respect but, in reality, the way you show equal respect differs in each instance.
Social example: Taking into account cultural differences, you would need to act differently to show the same degree of respect to two different world leaders with wildly different customs.
Silly Physics example: We can run full on into a speeding truck, and we know we both have equal and opposite force, but we must respect the fact that this will fair better for the truck than us.
Equivalence and Bias
Showing respect is easier said than done, humans are greatly affected by bias and this can get in the way of perceiving value. There is a fine line between over- or under-compensating for ingrained bias, but despite this, it is the striving for that balance in which we find true “correctness”.
When we overcompensate in an attempt to be politically correct, we can actually end up treating people unequally. This video points this out in a humorous way. The truth is simple, “respect is correct”. When something has value, you show it respect. Read more on what politically correct really means.
Defining Equivalent, Equal, Same, and Identical
The above dips it’s toes in semantics and philosophy, but the logic is rooted in the way the universe works as much as it is in morality. Let’s look at the dictionary.com definitions of the terms used on this page (as adjectives to keep it simple) to paint a clearer picture.
Equivalent: Equal in value, amount, function, meaning, etc. Corresponding in position and function. Geometry: having the same extent. Chemistry: having the same capacity to combine or react chemically.
Equivalent generally implies “equal value” despite differences, it’s a way of expressing ‘equal’ that only really make sense when two things are not completely identical.
Equal: As great as or the same as (often followed by to or with). Like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc. Evenly proportioned or balanced. Uniform in operation. Adequate or sufficient in quantity or degree. Having adequate powers, ability, or means. A level like a plain.
Equal can mean “the same as”, but the rest of the definition clarifies that this is meant in much the same way as equivalent (having equal value).
Same: Identical with what is about to be or has just been mentioned. Being one or identical though having different names. Agreeing in kind. Unchanged in character, condition, etc.
The word “same” can be used to express equivalence, but it can also be used to mean “identically the same”.
Identical: Similar or alike in every way. Being the very same. Agreeing exactly.
Identical is a stronger word than any of the above. Most things that have equal value aren’t ‘identical’, only a theoretical instance of an object can be truly identical. An identical twin is genetically identical but takes up a different part of spacetime.
Why Equal and Same are “Tricky”
In the above definitions, we can see that ‘equivalent’ and ‘identical’ are different. But in terms of semantics ‘equal’ and ‘same’ are similar to each other. In common language, when discussing equality in social issues or in physics, it can be really confusing when one party hears equal and thinks “identical” in the theoretical sense and another hears equal and thinks “equivalent value”. Out of this, we get physics-based myths such as thinking that mass and energy are EXACTLY the same and also confusion over social issues like feminism.
When we say all humans are created equal in America, we imply that all humans have equivalent intrinsic value and all humans deserve equivalent respect (based on that value, not equal respect regardless of life choices). For general purposes we can say words like “same”, but treating people the “same” isn’t always equal.
When the civil rights movement’s leaders asserted that “separate but equal” (actually “equal but separate”) isn’t equal, they meant that separation of schools by race would lead to a lack of equivalence in education (and that would not be fair and equitable treatment).
In this way, the schools could not be equal and separate, as the education would not be equal as a result.
Again, the morality of the statement isn’t in question for most, rather the semantics bog us down into arguing about meaning and correctness.
False social equality would be if every student got an A+ no matter their effort. True social equality would be ensuring every student has the same quality of textbook and the same chance of earning that A+, that is equitable.
TIP: In simple terms, “respect is correct”. When something has equivalent value, you show it equivalent respect.