Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Are All People Created Equal?

"All people are created equal." One hears that over and over again. But does the statement even have any meaning? In order for something to be equal, three things are required:

1. Thing A
2. Thing B to which A is equal
3. Quality C that A and B share which renders them equal.

The statement “all people are created equal” is too vague to have meaning because it doesn’t identify the variables B and C. It begs us to ask, equal in respect to what? What is the quality shared in common by all people which render them equal? 

Most people I have talked to answer this question by saying that we are talking about equality before the law. But in what sense can we say that all people are created equal before the law? Surely, whether human beings are equal before the law depends, not on the fact of their creation, but on the geography of their birth and the particular laws governing the jurisdiction into which they are born. Jews who were born into fascist Germany were tragically not equal before the law. It is at this point that most people would insist that we are not talking about whether people are actually equal but the fact that all people should be equal. That is to say, we are talking about equality as an ethical value rather than equality as a fact. 

If this is the case, then presumably the statement that “All people are created equal” means “all people who are created ought to be equal before the law.”  But even this statement is far from being self-evident. A baby or a prisoner does not have the same legal rights as a normal citizen, and it is far from obvious that this is a bad thing. Should children be able to vote like normal citizens? Should prisoners be able to run for mayor like free citizens? Can members of congress unionize like normal employees? Do we want to treat disabled people equally instead of giving them extra care?

It is when we ask questions like this that we find that true equality before the law is neither desirable nor practically attainable.

Further questions to ponder are these:

When asserting the equality of all people, do we mean that all people are equal or that all people should be equal?

Equality with whom and in what ways? In what respect are we claiming that two classes are equal with each other?

How do we prove that people are (or should be) the same in the ways that we claim they are (or should be) when upholding the values of equality?

If we try to base the equality of one thing (legal rights) on fact of equality in something else (human dignity, humanity, etc.), how do we first prove that the one thing follows from the other? How does the fact of equality in human nature or dignity lead to the premise that everyone ought to have equal rights?

How do we know which inequalities are good and which are not? For example, who would wish the survivor of a plane crash to be made equal with the dead victims of the accident? Who would wish handicapped people to be treated equally to non-handicapped people and therefore not given special treatment?

How do we distinguish a diversity to be celebrated from an inequality to be lamented?

Do our views of equality lead to the type of egalitarianism that assumes that because people are equal in worth they should be made equal in condition?

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