Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Equality: the words of Jesus and of the philosophers

On the issue of socio-economic equality it is interesting to consider the words of Jesus. In the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Jesus asks (Matt 20:15) 'Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?' The theological message is that divine grace is available for saints and sinners alike but the message as it could be applied to secular matters is that socio-economic justice does not have to mean exactly equal shares for all. Similarly, the phrase 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's,' which appears in the three synoptic gospels, is open to multiple interpretations as to whether it bestows or denies the right of secular authorities to govern as they see fit and proper. Also open to multiple interpretations are Jesus’s words that the poor are always with us (Mk 14:7; Mt 26:11; Jn 12:8), which may be taken to mean not so much that we should neglect the poor but rather we should not neglect our own spiritual lives for the sake of an overriding preoccupation with charity or social policy. In Lk 18:3 Jesus says he has been anointed 'to bring good news to the poor' and 'to let the oppressed go free' but in these passages the interpretation may be that he is making a universalist claim, a promise of salvation to all, rather than saying that he has been sent to reduce socio-economic inequality in a secular or political sense.

A glance at a dictionary of philosophy shows that the concept of equality is less an issue which can be settled by debate as an irresolvable paradox. The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that the 'central question about equality is how one might link [on the one hand] empirical or moral claims about the extent to which persons are equal to [on the other] judgements about the moral acceptability or unacceptability of social inequalities...'. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy says that in the abstract equality 'means that people who are similarly situated in morally relevant respects should be treated similarly; but everything depends on what kinds of similarity count as relevant'. In other words, in considering socio-economic equality we have to consider what we mean by the term, in what respects people are unequal and then we have to consider whether that is right or wrong and then we have to consider what we, individually and collectively, are going to do about the problem, if there is one.  In saying that the poor are always with us, Jesus may have been stating an uncomfortable philosophical and social truth.