General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

How old is the idea of equality before the law?

Asked by LostInParadise (32034points) August 26th, 2011

When Hammurabi spoke about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, did that apply across class lines? Could a wealthy person be punished for violating the rights of a peasant? If so, that would seem to be the first step in the direction of democracy, crude as it now seems. I am sure that the laws did not apply to slaves.

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11 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

“Class lines” were not completely abolished until first the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granding female sufferage, were passed. Prior to that, at least one or more groups were excluded from those “equal before the law.” Even now, the law in the US is applied unevenly at times, with the poor and some minorities getting less “justice” than others.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t really know the specific answer to your question, but what popped in my mind was in Ancient Greece, over 2000 years ago, so before Christ, unless my memory is wrong, which is possible since history tends to not hold in my brain, the Greeks, invented Democracy. Every citizen had a vote. All of them. The tricky part is slaves and women were not considered citizens I think? But, it was the birth of democracy and various levels of society all had a vote and could serve in the government.

Or something like that.

Aethelflaed's avatar

No, Hammurabi’s code did not have class equality. (Which, you can read here, starting about ½ the way down). It may have started in Ancient Greece, with Pericles, though it would have meant more the equality of all free males who were citizens (so not slaves, women, people who weren’t citizens, minors, etc). Then, after the fall of Rome, the idea largely disappears during the Middle Ages, and doesn’t really pop up again until the Enlightenment. We can see it being a big idea in the American and French Revolutions, that all men are created equal under the law (though, again, it’s not “all” but rather “all of this very small and selective group”). Even today, we still don’t have equality under the law; we still have restrictions like being of age, being a citizen, and less obvious forms of discrimination. So, the very most basic idea is pretty old, but applying it and working on it and expanding it is really new, and total equality has not yet been achieved.

LostInParadise's avatar

Interesting article. I did not know how extensive Babylon’s laws were. Note that those in the higher class were subject to greater fines. The idea was that with privilege came greater responsibility.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Yes, in the Middle Ages and for many years after there was the concept of “Noblesse Oblige,” which stated that the nobility had obligations to fulfil toward those in the lower classes. It would be nice if this obligation existed today, but alas, money is king and devil take the hindmost! : ((

flutherother's avatar

The Scottish ‘Declaration of Independence’ 1320 is the earliest statement I know acknowledging that a ruler, in this case Robert the Bruce, is subject to the will of the people. The quote is this…

“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.”

ragingloli's avatar

The idea was that with privilege came greater responsibility.
Today such thinking is decried as “socialism”.

SavoirFaire's avatar

The idea is extremely old; the reality has yet to come.

As already stated, equality before the law goes back at least as far as ancient Greece. Aristotle, for instance, argued that people should be treated equally to the extent that they were equal and unequally to the extent that they were unequal. In other words, he thought that people should be treated in the same way unless there were relevant differences that warranted different treatment.

While not universally endorsed, this principle has been rather popular among moral and political thinkers for a very long time. The problem, however, is that what counts as a relevant difference has been debated for just as long. Skin color, religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, birthplace, and even handedness have been considered relevant by some.

The petty differences people sometimes insist upon often remind me of the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” in which an alien race destroys itself because its members cannot get over the fact that half of the population is black on the left side and white on the right side while the other half is white on the left side and black on the right side. This is the sword they choose to die on, yet it is no more ridiculous than some of the differences that drive various acts of mindless violence today.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Right you are, and I remember that episode.

MajorDisappointment's avatar

Our principle, “Equal Justice Under Law”,
grants U$ equal protection under our Laws.

The Elite, and The State, may purchase,
or call up any order of magnitude,
in superior legal representation and technical resources.

Thus, purchased advantage aptly damns the equity.

Please share your concepts that will offset my contempt,
at witnessing this paid abasement of justice.

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