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The Declaration of Independence aptly proclaims some of the core principles from the Age of Reason that still ring true today:

"We 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 governed…"

For me, these concepts provide the philosophical foundation of liberty that helped shape who I am and what I believe.
Not 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 the opposite.
Which leads me to a philosophical debate from the early twentieth century:

1) Can freedom exist without equality?
2) Can equality exist without freedom?

In respect 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 fit.
    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.
I 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.
There 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.
This 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.

Looking Back

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.
Despite 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."
It was medieval chivalry that provided a moral counterforce, that eventually undercut class distinctions, privilege and discrimination.
Chivalry 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.
Although 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 all.
To 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?
Social 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.
Do we better judge people according to intelligence? Or would compassion be a better guide?
Shall we judge on race or ethnicity? Hair color? A particular religion? One gender more than the other? Political party?
Who 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.
Should science provide the measure?
What 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?
Or perhaps we should appreciate the nuances of some other advice that Jesus gave us — that we should not judge others at all.
As 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.
Opportunity and social mobility become possible.


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