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Defining Equality

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In the context of the world today, the concept of ‘equality’ is predominant and highly prevalent.  The world is actively advocating the end of racism, to embrace diverging perspectives, and to acknowledge that everyone has something unique to bring to the table. From the legislation of gay rights in America, to the rapid construction of disabled facilities on the roads of Hong Kong, the belief that everyone is born equal and should be granted equal opportunities seem like an idyllic concept, which can be achieved if we simply ‘put our masks down’ and be real with one another.

However, does equality really exist? And how does the law perpetuate this, to protect the interests of all? If we take a step back, and view the full picture, conceptually speaking, it isn’t possible. Imagine a hypothetical scenario – Three men were standing behind a fence. The first man is the tallest, followed by an average man and lastly the shortest, they all wanted to look over the fence. As a solution, would all men be given three stools of equal size? Or would the shortest man receive the tallest stool, the average man receives an average stool and no stool to be given to the tallest man? If this was the solution, although they would be able to view over the fence at equal eye level, does it represent equality? Some would argue fore, if the goal were simply to catch a glimpse over the fence. However it can also adequately be justified as unequal, given the varying amounts of assistance given to each individual. This can be an indefinite debate without reaching any unanimous consensus, and it exemplifies how ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ are open to multiple perspectives and interpretations. Hence, we must raise the question- is equality something of substance that is achievable, or is it a mere utopian view on society, and egalitarian as a form of wishful thinking?

This concept is further amplified in the dystopian science fiction “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, which was a satirical piece written to critique claims of equality. It took place in the year of 2081, where constitutional amendments were made to dictate full equal rights in American society. Anyone who was above average in any respect was given mechanisms or hindrances by the government. Hence, 14-year-old Harrison Bergeron, a physically and psychologically gifted teenager spent his life wearing handicap radios and heavy weights in order to oppress his potential. He was ultimately taken and assassinated by the government. His parents remained blinded, and were barely aware of the tragedy, due to their ‘equal and average’ intelligence. Although fiction, this short story fortified that equality does not translate into celebrations, until it is proven that it can be established without prejudice. This further elucidated the concerns of enforcing equality by the virtue of leveling.

This concept was developed by existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and can be defined as a social development, where uniqueness of individuals are rendered non-existent by assigning equal value to all aspects of human endeavors. Was Harrison’s treatment justified and equal? Or was it merely a socially enforced equality? The rationale of his oppression was to assure that his intelligence and appearance were at equal level with all his peers, yet to achieve this he experienced more pain than anyone else. Therefore, it emphasized the subjectivity in all aspects of law, including the value of inequality. This can be closely associated with the philosophical principles of deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology highlights the justifiability of an action. The principle is that every individual is obliged to fulfill an equivalent amount of personal duties. Hence, in this scope, equality is defined by granting equal treatment to all, and it fully rejects considerations of the outcome. On the other hand, utilitarians will focus on the consequence, despite acknowledging that the process may involve acts of prejudice. From a Utilitarian perspective, the act of hindering Harrison Bergeron with more severe handicaps than everyone else is justified. Therefore, it truly depends on the perspective on whether the goal is to treat everyone equivalently, or to focus on achieving an equal outcome.

Using the analogy of running. Despite placing everyone on the same starting line, the fastest runners will always complete the race prior to others. It spirals back to the debate on how equality is defined. Is it defined by the action to place everyone on the same starting line, or the outcome – so that heavy weights are placed on the faster runners to ensure that everyone completes the race together? While there is no definite answer, we must acknowledge that to strip an individual of their rights and advantages would act as a hindrance to progression of society, and will inevitably spiral into a vicious cycle. This is further amplified in reality. If Democracy is granting all a voice, then everyone should have the equal liberty in all political and economical decisions. This seems to be what the world is advocating, yet this model isn’t the most effective under specific circumstances, and can lead to inevitable conflicts like Brexit, or avocation of the “orchid evolution” in Singapore. To return to the original question, should we be giving everyone an identical stool to stand on? This is metaphorical to the ‘American dream’, which conveyed the reality that not every short person can be given the same stool, due to varying contextual backgrounds and socio-economic positions.

Viewing it from this scope, perhaps ‘equality’ is just a human construct or an ideal model. There is a general consensus that the meaning of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ is ever evolving, and it is dynamic in nature. But whether we will ever arrive at a finite conclusion, which everyone agrees on remains a mystery. Before the term ‘equality’ becomes a pejorative after being accumulatively associated with prejudicial events such as Brexit, and conflict of religious freedom, we must acknowledge that equality is merely an empty box, where anyone can contribute their own interpretations. Until a general consensus is reached, my opinion to whether it truly exists will be: no. What is equal in one’s eyes will not be in another, and it is intrusive to impose one’s values as moral relativism. The law is a powerful instrument to perpetuate that every individual in society holds equivalent rights to living, yet this must not be mistaken for a guarantee of equal opportunities, as that seems to be how equality is defined today. In a world where people run at varying paces, equality has yet to find its place.

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Legal Reform: Social Norms and Technology

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In the same way that photoreceptors in your eye respond to light, law responds to the stimulus of social pressure and technological advances. Take smoking as a first example. Rising drastically during the First and Second World War, the number of adults smoking cigarettes by 1949 amounted to approximately 81% of the male population and 39% of the female population. In the mid-20th century, smoking was seen as a social norm, with many advertisements oblivious to the health detriments caused by smoking. Notable slogans claimed fabricated benefits: “for digestion’s sake”, “a feeling of well-being”, and “throat protection against cough irritation”.

It was not until a 1950 report published in the British Medical Journal that evidential research was found, linking smoking with the formation of lung cancer. This was the first of a chain of research that changed the way both doctors and the public viewed smoking, resulting in social pressure for legal reform, in which the government was forced to respond to. In 1965, a ban on television cigarette advertisement was implemented, progressing to a complete advertisement ban in 2005 and most significantly an end to smoking in public was enforced in July 2007. More recently, the debate over cannabis legislation is a hot topic for future debate, with 26 US states currently legalising marijuana in some form. As scientific research progresses in this field of study, perhaps society’s attitudes towards cannabis may change, prompting further legal reform.

New crimes were necessary as computing became more prominent towards the end of the 20th century. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 served as a response to the rise in cyber-crime, most significantly hacking. Further legislation brought in targeted identity fraud and harassment over the web, encompassing cyber-bullying although it has no specific mention. Moreover, the development of cars and their sudden surge in frequency led to more common traffic accidents. Subsequently, laws were implemented to make driving on the roads a safer experience, with drink driving, mobile phone usage, and speeding all becoming new additions to criminal law in the UK.

To conclude, law has successfully evolved in line with social norms and technological developments in order to protect society and respond to pressure from reformist groups. It is vital that the law regularly adapts to modernisation, to prevent a backwards legal system and to protected the welfare of the majority.

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Recent Case of Charlie Gard – Who Knows Best?

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doctors vs judges

The recent Charlie Gard case that has flooded international news is characteristic of the intricate, global controversy: who has the right over life?

Infant Charlie Gard was born with an extremely rare genetic defect known as MDDS, which irreversibly deteriorated his condition to severe brain damage, immobility, deafness and ventilation by artificial means alone. Established under The Children Act 1989, institutional authorities (hospitals, governments) were assigned with giving the final decision on whether a young patient could live, designed to safeguard parents from protecting their own needs rather than what was best for their child.

Whilst Charlie’s parents wanted their precious child to live, all courts of appellate jurisdiction, along with the doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital, at which Charlie was kept on the life support, thought it was in Charlie’s best interests to end his life rather than allow his quality of life to be irrevocably poor.

So, who should we trust to give the final say about a child’s well-being? Should families, who have given birth to the child, their possession, be given the legal responsibility to overrule the state in their decision? Of course, this brings moral implications, such that the parents would not want to say goodbye to their child and therefore not act in his/her’s best interests.

Let’s now bring in another scenario, whereby the patient is of adult age. Tony Bland sustained detrimental injuries from the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, which left him in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) until his death in 1993. It was eventually ruled in the House of Lords that the Artificial Nutrition and Hydration (ANH), that was prolonging him living, should end to allow Bland to “die in dignity” (Court order). This case differs from the Charlie Gard case as both the parents and the doctors thought withdrawing ANH was in Tony’s best interests.

Despite differences, the Bland case elucidates the complexity involved in euthanasia cases in the UK. Was it morally right for the state to prevent Gard’s parents from allowing experimental treatment to be made in the hope of keeping their son alive, despite his physical and mental state? Was it morally right for the court to give consent to the withdrawal of ANH and allow Tony to die? How would the result differ if it was unsure how long he would be in a vegetative state for?

Let us assess one last scenario. Terminally ill man Noel Conway, aged 67, launched a legal challenge for his own right to die. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which has meant his ability to move, dress, eat and even breathe has irrevocably diminished. Noel condemned Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, which prohibited assisted suicide (voluntary euthanasia) under UK law, outlining his deteriorating quality of life and the prospect of “unimaginable suffering”. As he strongly remarks, “Current law means that I will have no control of how my life ends”.

We are once again asking ourselves where ultimate authority lies in determining the end of one’s life. This global complexity should never be looked on lightly and all cases of similar note should be looked at distinctly and intricately.

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After Taiwan, What’s Next For Asia?

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LGBT rights in Asia

T​aiwan has long been home to Asia’s most spirited LGBT communities, with the hashtag #TaiwanGayMarriageLegalization attracting over 11 million views on China’s Weibo. The country ​has recently joined the United States, Canada and 18 others to rule in favor towards ​constitutional protection of same-sex marriage. But the question of what it symbolises in Asia remains unresolved.

If the law functions to balance the need for stability with the demand for progress, Taiwan’s ​announcement from May acts as a positive testament. The decision favoring constitutional protection confirms growing momentum in the country, where child adoption by unmarried same-sex couples is becoming increasingly popular. Yet until the legislation was passed, only one individual can be recognised as a legal guardian. A condensed look reveals that legalising marriage is bound to cultural and political acceptance more deeply than economic concerns. It implies that the parliament has two years to amend laws regarding same-sex marriages. If not, couples will be permitted to register under the current framework. Both mothers or fathers of the adopted child could be entitled to equal welfare and property benefits.

Around the world, controversies surrounding alternative ideas from LGBT to the businesses of Uber and AirBnB have demonstrated the difficulty of balance. Taiwan’s ruling is undoubtedly a landmark for changing attitudes in Asia, but what does it signify for the rest of the hemisphere, where responses to minority cultural views remain conservative? Although attitudes to homosexuality were relatively liberal during the imperial times in mainland China, the ​Communist revolution in 1949 led to more cautious attitudes. Despite having it removed from the list of “mental disorders” in 2001, the stigma remains. Naturally, responses from China have been two-folded. Some are excited by the milestone, but others remain disheartened to the possibility of achieving legislative change. While many were still rejoicing shortly after the Taiwanese ruling, China’s most iconic lesbian socialising platform ‘Rela’ was shut down without explanation.

Likewise, although LGBT is not prohibited in the South Korean constitution, many remain closeted due to pressure from cultural traditions. But this is understandable, when some of the largest mobile corporations in the country have agreed to ​remove homosexual dating apps on the market, and a presidential candidate openly attacks gay soldiers for “weakening the country’s military.” Whether the rest of Asia could follow Taiwan’s footsteps as the social forerunner is still open to question, and it is certainly unjustified to generalise one of the largest and most diverse continents with a handful of examples. But one can be certain that ​LGBT continues to grow as an influential social dynamic in many Asian societies. ​Although t​he tug of war between traditional cultural views and changing public opinion will persist, ​Taiwan’s ruling could induce a chain effect in the long term.

When asking the youth “what do you dream of the world,” perhaps many would speak of tolerance. Such an abstract idea will undoubtedly carry a fluid definition, but obscurity is both its limitation and its beauty. The road to constitutional desegregation in the United states during in the 20th century was a difficult journey back and forth, and the same will go for LGBT in our time. But acceptance, before any legislative change is the first step that can go a long way. Regardless of whether one is in support of Taiwan’s ruling, it is an optimistic sign that ​societies are increasingly being warmed to the rights of gender and sexuality minorities through activism. It signifies not only acceptance of LGBT, but acceptance of cultural differences and their rights to equality before the law.

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