Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Moral Equality

I know, I've been posting an awful lot about religion and morality recently, but what can I say - they're interesting topics. And there are so many misconceptions just crying out to be addressed...

Matt Powell of Wheat and Chaff writes:
In MLK's cosmology, and in mine, all men are equal because all men have souls created in the image of God. That is our source of equality. Take away the soul, and the equality is gone.

As I understand the rest of his post, Matt seems to be asking for some ability or descriptive/substantive attribute that all people have in equal proportions. But people vary according to just about any measure one might care to imagine. So he suggests we all have equal 'souls'. I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean. Perhaps the 'soul' is our innermost self; the part of us that makes difficult decisions, engages in moral deliberation, etc.? If that's the case, then it just doesn't seem true that our souls are any more 'equal' (in the descriptive sense Matt is after) than the rest of us. Just like some people are faster runners than others, so some make better decisions, are more morally developed, and so forth. So if 'soul' means anything like what I suggested above, it cannot do the work Matt demands from it. (And if it doesn't mean this, then I'm not sure it means anything substantive.)

But of course, when we talk about people being 'created equal', we're not talking about any such descriptive equality. Rather, it is meant as an affirmation of moral equality. This might be best understood not as a substantive property possessed by others, but rather a claim about how we ought to treat them. Everyone is (prima facie) worthy of equal consideration. It would be wrong to discount someone else's interests just because they're of a different race or religion from you. More succinctly: all count in the moral calculus.

Although very abstract, I think it's a simple enough concept for any moral agent to understand. It's not about how fast we can run, how rationally we can think, or any other ability or descriptive property we may possess. It doesn't require that we have some internal organ that is literally identical or 'equal' to our neighbour's one. So it doesn't require God-given 'souls' - indeed, it doesn't require religion at all. It's simply about morality, and how we ought to treat others.

Matt continues:
[O]n what basis do you believe men to be equal? And what scientific evidence could I provide you with to prove to you that different races of people might in fact be unequal?

If there is no scientific evidence that I could provide you with to make that case, then that sounds a lot like religion to me.

Matt seems to have confused religion with a priori knowledge generally. I can't imagine any scientific evidence that would 'prove' to me that not all bachelors are unmarried, or that 2+2=5; does it follow that my mathematical and semantic beliefs are somehow "religious" in nature?

To answer the first question: some reasons for including all people's interests in the moral calculus were described in my recent post, objective moral relativism.

As for whether this claim is revisable, I have my doubts. I think the fundamentals of morality are a priori, though of course the details depend upon contingent facts. So while scientific findings may show how to better help people (and thereby change our particular moral beliefs), it's difficult to see how it could cast doubt on something as axiomatic as moral equality. (Though scientific advances have been known to cause revisions to what beforehand seemed like analytic truths - so who knows for sure?)

But we could, at least, speculate as to possible circumstances which might downplay the practical import of this principle. Imagine the 'Lucky' race, whose members tend to be very happy and satisfied almost independently of contingent life events. Since nothing we do is likely to thwart their desires anyhow, we might well employ the heuristic of ignoring the interests of Luckies. (Within limits, of course; death would obviously still harm them!) We might treat other races as if they were more important, morally speaking. But this would not be a case where moral equality was genuinely 'disproved'; in actual fact Luckies are still just as important as anyone else. It's just that, as a practical matter, the best way to fulfill (everyone's) desires generally is to ignore Luckies and put more energy into looking after everyone else.

Update: Matt responds here.


  1. I'm admittedly not up on MLK's religious beliefs. But I believe the idea is that we are each of equal moral worth to God in that he loves all equally. It doesn't have anything to do with souls that I can see. 

    Posted by Clark Goble

  2. Whoops, I see you touched upon that in the previous post regarding God's subjectivity. I'd say however that this confuses God's ethical beliefs with God's subjective likes. (Although I think that in most Christianity God is unlike humans in his subjectivity so your argument probably wouldn't work)

    The point is though that if God says we are all of equal ethical worth then that is an objective claim to a Christian unlike say God's love of pumpkin pie.

    Even if one doesn't buy the idea that it is good because God says it we can say that this is an epistemic principle. i.e. we don't know *why* ultimately we are of objective equal worth but we know that we are because God says it.


    Posted by Clark Goble

  3. hmm there is a problem when a person who is generally left of centre (as oposed to "insane right" comes to the conclusion that men cannot be equal.
    It is a short road to some pretty both weird and often distasteful solutions. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  4. Maybe the soul is all that's left to cling to after everything else human has been shown to vary.


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  5. Clark, I agree that the theist too can affirm moral equality. My point was merely that the religious trappings (e.g. a supernatural soul) don't seem to be doing any work here (unless one doubts the very possibility of secular morality, but that would go well beyond the scope of this little blog post!). 

    Posted by Richard

  6. I tend to follow an argument Hume used ,that we may know of God but we cannot the attributes that are God . As to all men are equal,two points; Jefferson and other felt that men are equal in the eyes of the law,he certainly didn't think American Indians were equal in any broader sense[note the Declaration of Independence]. A belief in the objectivity of morals necessitates a related belief that all men should be treated equally as moral agents,if not viewed as such then they must be viewed as capable of becoming moral agents. Therefore the business about race is shakey,therefore I hesitate before accepting Jefferson's stated belief's 

    Posted by John T

  7. Richard, I think you have discarded too quickly the best meaning of "created equal" when you said that "of course, when we talk about people being 'created equal', we're not talking about any such descriptive equality."

    What the term should mean is that all human beings equally or alike have the quality, the character, of being persons. Having certain species-specific properties, they have an equality in their common humanity. It's derived from our understanding that humans differ radically in kind from all other creatures by possession of features wholly lacking in other creatures to any degree. Implicit therein is the superiority of men over animals because humans are persons and animals are only "things". It also means we never call anyone more or less human than anyone else because our humanity is derived from this difference in kind.

    Justice (in its fairness component) requires us to treat (1) equals equally and (2) unequals unequally in proportion to their inequality. We regard humans as superior in kind, and as ends not means. Because all humans are equal in kind with one another, because all are persons and as persons equal in kind, justice requires that one human being must treat another human being as an end, never as a means as we do other animals.

    If humans were superior to other animals only in degree, that humans were merely higher animals and other animals were lower animals, it would justify some humans in treating other animals and some humans as means. Indeed, we would have no defense against doctrines of superior and inferior human races, and justification for the superior to enslave, exploit or even kill the inferior. That humans and animals differ in all respects only in degree was an explicit statement in one of the Nazis' Nuremberg decrees. This point is so important and so misunderstood that we all ought to be wary, for example, of the breezy claims of "animal rights" advocates who claim - employing precisely the same logic as the Nazis - that all human and animal differences are mere differences of degree. Likewise, we ought to reflect upon the implications of evolutionary theory to the extent it attempts to say that man's origin and nature are the same as other animals in every respect, ie, that there's a fundamental continuity in nature with respect to humans in all ways, explained by underlying differences in degree.

    Central to the whole moral, political, legal or juridical, and religious structure of Western civilization is the distinction between person and thing. That distinction makes sense only if it's one in kind and not in degree. We never call things persons in any degree and we never call persons things in any degree. 

    Posted by Davis Nelson


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