Moral and Functional Value Scales: Understanding the Issue of Equality

Since roughly the civil rights era in the US (1960s), there has been a lot of talk about equality – namely the need to affirm the equality of people regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, creed, ability, etc. (obviously, that conversation was started much earlier, but it was the 1960s that saw the issue reach a critical point in the consciousness of the general population). This culminated in the Fair Housing Act (1965), Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972), and other such measures designed to legally affirm and protect the equality of the various groups, and individuals within those groups, in the US. However, since the 1990s, the push for equality has taken on a rather different direction – though, judging by the developments in social rhetoric, most people seem to be unaware of the fact.

In particular, the primary notion seems to have become centered on the idea that the recognition of differences in groups or individuals (sans a celebration of those differences) is an attempt to undermine the equality of people. Thus, as in the case of much of politically correct language, the goal became the eradication of all claims of differences, underwritten by increasingly hostile intolerance towards anyone who would challenge the “equality” of groups and individuals – even if the challenge was a practical understanding of the differentiation of skill and ability, without reference to value as a human being.

This move, however, is a bad one, for any number of reasons. In the present analysis, I will focus on the idea that this approach confuses two unrelated concepts: the morality scale and the practical functionality scale. Before proceeding to the analysis, a few caveats are in order.

First, it is accurate to note that the emphasis of certain differences among people – drawn along any number of “identity” lines – has been used historically to justify actual oppression unto genocide of those deemed “different.” As soon as people are primarily identified by group (rather than as individuals), there exists a potential that the trait used to define that group can be used to condemn all its members. Thus, by condemning the group trait, including race or ethnicity, we can pass judgment on all individuals of that group, without trial, evidence, or accounting for individual actions and responsibility (i.e. we have a basis for collective guilt, and justification for collective punishment). This attitude has especially been the case in the West, as a tradition that used Aristotle’s idea of differences of peoples to justify natural slavery. Therefore, it is somewhat understandable that the topic is a sensitive one.

Second, the purpose of this article is not to undermine, in any way, the notion of equality of humans qua humans. Instead, it aims to preserve this equality while allowing for a pragmatic ability to acknowledge the kinds of functional differences that are undeniably present, and which must be accounted for, if society is to continue to function.

Finally, I was born with a facially-disfiguring disability that took 21 years and 17 major surgeries to correct; I am an immigrant to the United States; and I grew up in a genocidal war zone. That is, I have personal experience of several different differentiating minority group statuses. Though it pains me to no end to have to resort to playing the various minority cards (because they should be irrelevant in an intellectual discussion), the present political climate makes noting such status something of a necessity up front, in order to avoid the less-than-intellectual backlash of those who would forego the argument in lieu of personal experience and identity classifications. I have the experience, but more importantly, I am speaking from a well-informed, academic position – since applied ethics is the subject of my Ph.D.

With that out of the way, let’s consider the notion of a moral scale. As a side note, both these scales (moral and practical) are something I developed when dealing with different areas of applied ethics. The actual points on the graph are arbitrary (except for the occasional specific point being made – e.g. cows in figure 2). The specific ordering is generally culturally designated; the fact of ordering is important.


We can imagine the moral scale (figure 1) as a way of organizing the world. Moral value is the intrinsic value of an entity, which determines its rights and responsibilities. Moral value is granted to things at different levels and comes with differing rights and responsibilities. In nearly all human thought, and especially in the Western experience, humans are the only entities with moral responsibility, and have a lion’s share of rights. This is because human beings occupy a privileged position of having free will (not to mention the traditionally religious elevated position of humanity). The higher up on the moral scale, the more rights a thing has. Thus, it is not a problem to treat insects as “pests” and attempt to eradicate them, but it is a problem to treat pets in the same way.

Figure 1

However, the primary distinction of the moral scale occurs between human (top) and non-human (everything else). Again, the moral agency of human beings is taken as the reason why humanity is set apart. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, which became the standard Western position, whatever is under humans on the moral scale, is subject to some form of use or exploitation by humans.[1] This follows from Genesis 2, with the idea that the value of non-human entities is determined by their utility to humanity.[2] As a result, we can think of the simplified moral scale as human (all the rights and responsibilities) and sub-human (limited rights, no responsibilities).

So long as others are at our own level of the moral scale, they have the same rights and responsibilities as we do, by definition. Thus, their treatment, with regards to their humanity, must be the same kind of treatment we would consider acceptable for ourselves.

A good example of this difference can be seen in the idea of food. Humans are morally able to consume all non-humans as food. There are occasional dietary prohibitions, but generally speaking, all non-humans are on the menu. This also includes pets, in cases of emergency, though they are far above the rest of the entries on the moral scale. However, the one thing that is never on the menu, are other humans. Even in extreme situations, killing a human being for food is an inexcusable sin in Western society. Even consuming a human that died of natural causes is greatly frowned-upon. By comparison, the animal world is not limited in their diets – because they have no responsibility other than biological drives for survival. Thus, even when an animal eats a human, it is not a morally bad animal – because it is amoral to begin with. This includes eating the young of their own species – as is the case with bears. Again, we do not pass judgments on animals for such actions, though we are likely to summarily execute any human that did such a thing.[3]

In certain instances, we do appear to pass judgment on animas who consume humans, and then hunt them down and kill them. However, this is not, in fact, a moral judgment, but a practical one. The tiger who turns man-eater is not hunted because it is morally deficient, but because it threatens the survival of humans in the area. The tiger is not “allowed” to eat people, but people are allowed to kill the tiger, precisely because humans outrank the tiger on the moral scale.

A great example of the moral scale diet at work is Hinduism. As a matter of religious perspective, cows are understood to be sacred. That is, their moral value (rights of cows) has been elevated from the standard understanding which considers them livestock. Once this upgrade kicks in (Fig. 2), the cow is suddenly off the menu. In fact, eating beef is, in Hinduism, equivalent to cannibalism – if not worse.

Figure 2

Historically, the notion of slavery in the West has considered the enslaved populations to belong to the sub-human category (Fig. 3). Perhaps, it is more accurate to say that, following Aristotle’s position on natural slavery,[4] the slave is seen as an inferior human, and the master is seen as a superior human. In either case, it is this reduction in humanity that has made the slave susceptible to mistreatment unto death. In fact, the generally nonchalant nature of murdering slaves is on full display in Euthyphro.[5]

Figure 3

A similar line of reasoning was generally used in justifying colonial treatment of the local populations.[6] Crucially, the idea that permeated the colonial mindset is that the people colonized were inferior humans, and thus the superior humans (colonizers, by the virtue of their ability to militarily defeat the locals) had the right to treat the colonized people as they saw fit.

Figure 4

This ideology was taken to its extreme point by the Nazis, who, like jingoistic and xenophobic tribes, admitted only themselves to the highest level of the moral scale. The real trick in the Nazi position of Aryan supremacy was not the claim that some humans are more human than others. Indeed, this had been an accepted notion in Europe for quite a while. In fact, a number of European peoples fared little better than American slaves under the reign of other Europeans (e.g. the Irish under the British) – though this was generally based on political and military might, and the ability to exercise control over the weak (as per Aristotle). The real trick was the elevation of the German people above all other people, including all other Europeans, in the same way that the Europeans in general saw themselves above the people they had colonized.

This is a rather serious departure from the earlier animosity with recognition of human value between, say, the Brits and the French. The British crown would have gladly wiped out the French nobility and vice versa, but they saw the common people as people – and in case of victory, those people would be under conditions functionally no different than their own people of equal rank (a French peasant was as good as a British peasant, because he did all the same things a British peasant did). The Nazi supremacy move made all non-Aryans inferior, and thus sub-human on the moral scale. This means that even the peasants were subject to the issue of moral inferiority.

Figure 5

Again, the moral scale separates all things into the human and non-human groups and assigns them moral value. Moral value is the intrinsic value of an entity, which determines its rights and responsibilities. Moral value is granted to things at different levels and comes with differing rights and responsibilities. The modern “equality” position started as an attempt to ensure that all humans are part of that top-tier spot, with equal rights. However, over time, all claims and references to differences, including the glaringly obvious biological ones, have been presented as an attempt to remove the moral equality of those who are “different.” Consequently, Godwin’s Law and Nazi analogies abound.

However, the moral scale is not the only one in play, and that’s why the blind adherence to “equality by humanity” attitude is problematic.


The second scale measures practical value – an attribute that is entirely unrelated to moral value. In fact, depending on the situation in which we measure practical value, the position on the scale may change.

First, we have to define the idea of practical value. Practical value is a function of problem-solving ability, on a social level, and in the context of need. For example, individuals with higher IQ have greater practical value potential, than those with low IQ – generally speaking. This is simply because the difference in the IQ feature makes the former potentially more capable of providing greater problems solving power than the latter.

Figure 6

Clearly, the context of need can flip the entire ranking on its head, because the kinds of problems we need solved can change radically. For example, landing a man on the moon (as a problem in need of a solution) required a whole lot of people whose skillsets included mathematics, engineering, etc. Thus, the people with those skills had a greater practical value in that context. On the other hand, that same group of top notch scientists is not precisely a practical group to rely on, when physical strength is crucial. Alternately, if we need someone to run across a battlefield, dodging bullets the whole way, to deliver orders to friendly troops under fire, Stephen Hawking (for all his brilliance) is simply the bottom of the list of practical value.

Practical value is a field where the differences between individuals or groups become exactly the kind of thing we want and need to know. It allows us to best identify the kinds of potential most likely to contribute to best problem-solving outcome. The Navajo, for example, had a particularly high practical value in WWII, precisely because of a feature of being Navajo – namely their language which was resistant to code-breaking by the Axis powers. This gave them far higher value in the war than their relatively limited numbers would otherwise suggest.

Oddly enough, the question of practical value is so radically different than that of moral value, that it easily crosses the species boundaries that are seemingly intractable on the moral value scale. For example, the functional value of an ox greatly exceeds that of a human, in the context of tilling fields in a pre-mechanized era. Dogs have far greater value than most humans, in the contexts of finding avalanche survivors, detecting people trapped under rubble, scent-tracking, etc.

Practical value comes in one of two flavors: general and specific.

General practical value is a matter of the ability to successfully engage and navigate complex systems, usually on the abstract level, in order to derive the desired result. This works like a top-down hierarchical model. For example, it takes serious ability to look at a failing city and find a way to reimagine it – step by step – as a major growing metropolis. The kind of visionary genius is needed that can juggle the vast variety of social and economical factors, in order to find the right kinds of laws, policies, and projects to turn the city around – all the while knowing how to properly prioritize these steps, so that the final outcome is the desired one.

Specific practical value is a matter of the ability to successfully deal with a particular task at hand, at a very concrete level. This is the “below the top” hierarchical process, which takes the vision from above, and translates it into concrete process to be fulfilled. This value is a matter of knowing how to realize some aspect of the general idea. This valuation is more of a gradient feature – with each step towards the more practical action being more and more limited in the scope of generalized value.

Two things need to be noted, lest the idea come across as some sort of fascist vision. First, within this hierarchy, each level seeks to realize the “vision from above.” However, their product becomes the vision for the next level in hierarchy – and that “lower” level of the hierarchy makes the actualization of the “vision from above” possible. The architect turns the vision of the client into a concrete blueprint, but the contractors see the blueprint as that vision, and the electricians see the foreman’s interpretation of the blueprints as their vision, etc. Thus, it’s not the case that the client vision somehow informs the structure all the way down; it is constantly mediated by the interpretive processes along the way. Second, because human beings, unlike squirrels, have a vast array of concerns and roles we play, we are never in a single point of the hierarchy, but inhabit any number of different systems and different positions within those systems. E.g. a single mother of two, who works as a Target associate is at the bottom of the Target hierarchy, but at the top of her domestic one. Thus, we are both the executors of the “vision from above” as well as its creators – though in different contexts.

For example, the visionary mayor decides that reviving the city requires that the city docks should be multi-functional, allowing for trade and transport, while also transforming that part of town into an attractive waterfront for commercial and residential functions – over the next 5 years, and within a specific budget range. That’s the most abstract level. The idea then goes to varieties of ministers, who commission various designs, deal with particular issues etc. The designs are proposed by various firms and the individuals within the firms, and the final designs are then turned into construction projects by the experts in that field; the best general contractors are selected to best oversee the task; the best subcontractors are engaged to do the work; the best supervisors are tasked with oversight; the best workers are put to work. At each level, from the mayor to the worker, there is a question of practical value of the individual or group. While the mayor deals with abstract concepts, the rest of the hierarchy is increasingly specialized in their tasks. Bob the veteran brick-layer is better than Steve the newbie. But he is better functionally, not morally.

Examples like this make it clear that conflating the moral and practical values is incoherent. But it also highlights the importance of acknowledging the differences: a company looking to sort through 100 applications needs to pay attention to the differences of the applicants, with the problem-solving practical value for their company in mind. The equality of those applicants, in terms of their humanity and human rights, is irrelevant. When I want someone to look over my philosophical article, I contact a different friend than when I’m looking to answer a cyber-security question. I know who to contact for which job by focusing on the differences of practical value between individuals. This does not mean that I imagine one friend as sub-human, in order to get help from another.

The question of practical value is a question rooted in the particularities of our goals, or the hierarchy of aims we happen to have. Thus, the aforementioned context of need. The qualities that matter in assigning practical value are entirely dependent on the goal in question. Without defining the goal, we cannot functionally distinguish practical value of possible agents. To borrow an analogy, there is no such thing as “illness” nor such thing as “medicine.” All illnesses are actually specific conditions, and all medicines are actually specific treatments. Knowing what treatment is required is a matter of knowing what condition is to be treated. We cannot coherently argue that all medicines are equal, because they treat illnesses, and thus that it should make no matter what pills we take.

An interesting feature of practical value is that it is not actually set in stone by the virtue of some given attribute of a person. A significant part of the equation is also found in the kinds of activities that are up to the individual – like dedication to work, conscientiousness, corruptibility, etc. For example, something like high IQ is a potentially valuable feature. But not all high IQ people perform to their potential. In fact, if the high IQ is not paired with something like a strong work ethic, the results are significantly sub-par. A high IQ student who does not put in the time throughout the semester and writes the final paper hours before it is due, produces a qualitatively worse product than a classmate with lower IQ but great work ethic. This is the Turtle and Hare scenario, and the value produced by the proverbial turtle is actually far higher (so long as the race is something the turtle is physically capable of accomplishing). The practical value scale can, and does, take such effort-based aspects into account when producing the final analysis of practical value. Obviously, effort is not always enough to make a difference. Someone missing a crucial feature cannot simply make up for it by hard work, and so no amount of effort helps. For example, if the minimum height requirement for a rollercoaster tester is 6’4”, there is no amount of effort that will get me there if I’m 5’9”.

Similarly, the practical value potential also has to take into account the drives and intentions of the groups or individuals in question. Simply being an expert in a field, or having a high IQ is not enough to be practically valuable in all situations. Dr. Mengele was a great medical doctor (in terms of skill), who was also a dedicated Nazi and a kind of monster normally reserved for only for the most terrifying mythology. While he would certainly be capable of treating your sore throat, his drives and intentions make him… less than suitable for family practice, and far more suited for the gallows. Therefore, practical value scale must also account for the group or individual functionality within society (through concepts like socialization) – an element we can approximate, at best, though we are fairly good at recognizing the socially maladjusted instances.

Humans function primarily in societies, and societies require us to rely on the practical functionality of others, to satisfy certain needs we have, but are unwilling or unable to attend to ourselves. This is why most of us don’t grow our own food, despite the fact that food is necessary for your survival; we have outsourced the problem to someone else, and trade for goods in labor (generally represented as money – the outcome of that labor). Consequently, we see each other as human, yes, but also as the kinds of things we use to accomplish our own goals. When looking at the requirements of our needs – personal and social – the differentiation between elements that play part on the practical value scale are crucial in allowing for our success and survival. Again, practical value is independent of moral value. A human is a human, with the full range of rights assigned them. Their utility is a function of their active and potential contribution to the problem-solving capacity, not their humanity. While we should not confuse the two scales, there is no objective problem with having a frank and open discussion on the question of individual and group differences. In fact, it’s the exploration of these differences that play a major part of our daily interactions with others.

If we’re looking to employ Bob, it is crucial for us to have a good sense of Bob’s practical value. If we’re looking for a wheat farmer, with a decent grasp on reading, and a modicum of conversational Mandarin, Bob’s the man. But if we need to farm bananas, Bob is the opposite of what’s required.

Figure 7

This distinction needs to be pushed, or else the result is that we have to pretend that Yao Ming and Steve the pygmy are identical in all ways. No, they’re not. One is 7’6” and the other is 4’11” If height is what happens to play a role in functional problem-solving at the moment (maybe we need to reach the top shelf, or maybe we need someone to fit into an A/C duct), pretending that there is no difference between the two is incoherent, and actively hurts our ability to solve the problems before us.

Imagine trying to claim that, since a hammer and a screwdriver are both tools, there is no difference in which one you use. Perhaps if the problem can be solved by either screwing in the screw, or hammering it in, that would be fine. But if the problem facing us is the disassembly of your brand-new laptop, suddenly the differences between a hammer and a screwdriver are critical to note.


Those who continue to push for the “no difference” idea, are missing the point of noting differences. It is possible to use differences as the basis for claiming greater or lower moral value of individuals or groups (as it is possible to misuse all things), but that’s not what the “equality” position is actually addressing. Instead, it is pushing for a generally incoherent reading of reducing everything to “equality by humanity” – and denying any differentiation beyond that, and attacking the experts who do try to address those differences, by calling them fascists, neo-Nazis, etc. So long as the “no difference” idea remained on the moral differentiation level, that might be fine. But the differences we’re supposed to pretend do not exist are things like physical and biological differences – i.e. the kinds of demonstrable differences that most certainly play a functional difference in our ability to problem-solve on individual and social levels, and which are so glaringly obvious as to need no proof. It also makes the very act of having a preference (which is always held by assigning higher practical value to one thing, over another), an act of intolerance, and calls for social and legal punishment of such preferences.

In terms of having a preference, consider that preferring, say, your spouse to any other random person, is a matter of assigning higher practical value to that person, over all other people. It is a practice that “devalues” people at as high a rate as is practically possible – because the other 7 billion people on the planet are worth “less” to you in practical terms. If we went by the strict “equality by humanity” idea, it would not matter who showed up at your house at the end of the day. It could be your spouse, or Bob from down the street, or your grandmother, or any other human on the planet. But it is rather crucial to us that it is our spouse who comes home, not any other person.

It may not be comfortable to openly speak of group or individual inadequacies and lack of value for particular tasks, but we ought to be adult enough to recognize the difference between moral and practical valuations. While we should not tolerate attempts to devalue the humanity (and consequently basic human rights) of individuals or groups, a serious consideration of practical value is critical for continued social existence. Engineering firms must hire engineers – not farmers; hospitals must hire doctors and nurses – not interpretive dancers. Even those who continue to focus on any acknowledgment of differences as a moral evaluation cannot escape the use of practical scales in their own work. For example, the very question of equal pay is anchored in the question of “equal work” – i.e. practical value; the complaints about the quality of legal representation for minorities or the poor is anchored in drawing distinctions between the functionally “good” and “bad” lawyers – on the basis of things like pay, workload, etc.

When we require the services of others, we seek the best we can afford – we try to go to the best dentist, not the worst. That ability to find the best depends on functional use of practical value scales. Unless we’re willing call all preference intolerant (which we should not), we affirm the value of that scale every day, without believing that somehow having a preference and evaluating merit makes us Nazis.

The actionable point is that we must be careful to distinguish between moral and functional scales, and must recognize when the argument blurs the line. Our responses to such arguments must focus on reestablishing the distinction and maintaining it. Against the claim that our own position is not politically correct or is intolerant, we must first ensure that our position is not, in fact, relying on moral evaluation, but a functional one. If our position is based on functional evaluation, then we must reject the false interpretation by demonstrating it as a fallacy (because it is either an ad hominem or straw-man argument). While there are always those ready to intentionally misinterpret our position, they are not the target audience anyway. Instead, we must ensure that our argument is sufficiently clear to the general audience.



[1] White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis [with discussion of St. Francis; reprint, 1967].” Ecology and Religion in History. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

[2] Ibid. Excluding God and angels.

[3] While cannibalism is a known historical activity of some tribes, no major civilization has ever allowed it (i.e. large, long-lasting civilization).

[4] Aristotle: if you get enslaved, then you should be a slave

[5] Plato. “Euthyphro.” In The Works of Plato. Ed. Irwin Edman. The Modern Library; New York, 1956. Pp. 37-9.

[6] J.S.Mill makes this point clearly in his A Few Words on Non-Intervention.

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