Unpacking Ethical Symmetry

Have you ever had a phrase stick in your head for a week or weekend? This seems to happen all of the time for me, and this weekend it was the term ethical symmetry. Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek recently discussed how ethical symmetry is a part of the human condition. We seek a balance or symmetry in the ethical dilemmas with which we intersect. For schools, this often manifests itself when we consider questions of fairness,. The results are often conversations or comments like, "it's not fair that he gets this when no one else does" or "we should try to make it the same for everyone." Hearing comments like these have often led to tough conversations about whether we are seeking equality or equity in schools. 


If it is the former, then equal service and sameness is often what emerges. If it is the later, then equity requires a personalization of efforts, resources, and advocacy to move those further behind because of systemic, cultural, and attitudinal barriers closer to the finish line. This tension between equity and equality simmers below the surface of most major conversations about education today including recent work produced by NPR. Wilczek's comments about ethical symmetry are helpful in naming  the struggle as a part of the human condition. It is natural for us to rationally seek ethical symmetry though we know emotionally that sameness is our work only perpetuates inequities. Being awareness of this desire for ethical symmetry will help us to be intentional about how we move forward with our work for all kids in all situations.