Declaration of Independence aptly proclaims some of the core
principles from the Age of Reason that still ring true today:
hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of
Happiness-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted
among men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the
For me, these
concepts provide the philosophical foundation of liberty that
helped shape who I am and what I believe.
everyone in Western culture shares this sentiment. Some pay homage
to the words, and then blaspheme them by protesting equal rights
for others. Many claim to do this under the aegis of "traditional
values" or "traditional American values." To my mind,
in light of the ideals articulated above, such values are quite
leads me to a philosophical debate from the early twentieth century:
1) Can freedom
exist without equality?
2) Can equality exist without freedom?
to the first, history shows that even a perception of inequality
produces barriers to freedom. Discrimination, be it racial, ethnic,
religious, gender-related or any other, always results in curbing
another person's liberty.
As for the second, it has been cogently suggested
that equality might be attained by tight government control limiting
the actions of a populace. Examples include communism, fascism and
all types of totalitarianism. Their continually failed attempts
teach us that equality loses its meaning when freedom is artificially
suppressed. What good is a restricted equality if it inhibits rather
than enhances the rich qualities of human potential?
Unfortunately, all this philosophical insight
is thrown off course by the undeniable fact that human equality
is not "self-evident." What is evident is quite the reverse.
People display a wide variety of personal differences and moral
inclinations. No two share the exact same personal acumen, intelligence,
moral disposition, talent, wealth, station, opportunities, physical
attributes, health, temperament, taste, and a host of moral preferences.
No sensible person can deny this. Albert Einstein and Jeffrey Dahmer
cannot be considered the same or equals. Neither can a set of identical
twins. Everyone contributes and detracts from life differently.
How is it then, in light of the obvious, that
we still find the idea of equality so compelling, and even essential
as a vital component of freedom itself?
The only answer I could find, oddly enough, comes
from my own experience.
Growing up in a culture where the ideal of equality
is considered sacrosanct (no matter how poorly it is put into effect),
the words of Thomas Jefferson, quoted above, had given me permission
to be free. What could be more life-transforming than that?
The words did not make me free. Only I could do that. Nevertheless,
they gave me permission to own my own life and shape it as I saw
How? By telling me that I was equal to all others,
even though I obviously was not. They encouraged me to think for
myself, and become a man of my own choosing. They told me to discover
truth on my own, decipher its meaning, and not be shackled by someone
else's interpretation. They gave me the courage and the apparent
right to challenge the status quo when need be, resist influences
of peer pressure, and work at making a better world, rather than
just exploiting it. That, to me, is real freedom because it liberates
the better part of my own humanity.
came to the conclusion that the benefits of equality come not so
much from equality itself, but from a mutually respected ideal
that liberates our potential.
is no such thing as a world where everyone is equal. People are
too varied and complex. Even as individuals we change during our
lifetimes. The infant is not the same as the child, who is not the
same as the adult. I am a different person than I was 30 years ago,
and will change even more in the next 10. True equality would create
a homogenized world of little interest. We all understand this,
at least instinctively.
is why I hold that the assumption of equality as an ideal is an
unreachable goal, but even as such it delivers great benefits. Equality
and freedom can never be commodities that we can hold or purchase
or pull out of a hat. They are inspirations toward which we strive
in order to achieve personal authenticity. We either express them
in our lives or we do not.
When we look
back to the Age of Chivalry, we find almost nothing that promotes
equality. The feudal system was so rigidly structured that inequality
between the classes was never even questioned. Even Arthur's Round
Table conferred equal status only among an elite corps of knights.
all this, the concept of equality eventually gained a surprisingly
strong foothold in the West. The feudal mindset, with its stratified
duties and values, was suddenly and radically transformed. Apparently,
the idea of human equality took hold of the popular imagination
before it was fully articulated. By Jefferson's time, no proof had
to be given. it was considered "self-evident."
was medieval chivalry that provided a moral counterforce, that eventually
undercut class distinctions, privilege and discrimination.
accomplished this at a fundamental level by calling for justice,
defending those in need, courtesy, respect for gender differences,
generosity to the poor, and a direct approach to spirituality represented
by the Grail Quest. Here we find seeds for equality scattered throughout
medieval literature, taking root in an environment that professed
just the opposite. When the Age of Reason eventually arrived, radical
ideas of freedom and equality found a ready audience.
true equality cannot exist as long as people are people, our Western
ideals promote the wise assumption that equality is real, and tell
us to live accordingly. Why? In order to maximize freedom for us
fully appreciate this, we need to consider how a community based
on inequality would function. Who would be so perfect as to judge
our differences? By what criteria?
Darwinism tells us that the wealthy are naturally superior to the
poor; but Jesus, whose teachings had a phenomenal influence on Western
civilization, taught something very different. He claimed that it
was the poor who were blessed. In God's eyes, the wealthy had more
chance of squeezing a camel through the head of a needle than being
welcome before God.
we better judge people according to intelligence? Or would compassion
be a better guide?
we judge on race or ethnicity? Hair color? A particular religion?
One gender more than the other? Political party?
do we put in charge? Every tyrant has weaknesses. Every king, queen
or lord has idiosyncratic faults and limited wisdom. Presidents
are just human. At times, congressional bodies seem little more
than organized frat clubs.
science provide the measure?
do we do with inferiors? What privileges will our betters enjoy?
Would genetic engineering help raise the masses? Should we have
a caste system, with inherited aristocracy on top, warriors alongside
them, merchants a little lower, and workers on the bottom? Opps.
We slipped back to the Middle Ages, didn't we?
perhaps we should appreciate the nuances of some other advice that
Jesus gave us that we should not judge others at all.
you see, a society that promotes inequality would be a confusing
mess. When equality sets an ideal, however, things straighten out
in an inspirational, liberating fashion.
and social mobility become possible.