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Why Should We All Be Considered “Equal”?

Moral status or dignity is not tied to a narrow quality or capacity such as medical, mathematical or linguistic knowledge.

(Image: Paper people via Shutterstock)

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Facts matter. The wealthiest 1% of the US population possesses 34.6 percent of wealth. The top 1% to 10% owns another 38.5 percent of the wealth. This means that the wealthiest 10% control 73.1 percent of American wealth. How much does this leave for the other 90%? Just 26.9 percent. For perspective, imagine you’re at a dinner party with 9 other people, and the host is about to serve a delicious chocolate cake. He cuts it into 10 equal slices, puts one piece onto a plate and invites you and the other 8 guests to divvy it up. Meanwhile he settles down for a belly-aching good time with the other nine slices. That’s how wealth is distributed in this nation: Damn near the whole cake goes to the people in the multi-million-dollar suites or mansions, but for one slice, which the rest of us battle each other for.

The 2011 documentary, Park Avenue, is an example of a film that expertly details the facts of US economic distribution, the way lobbyists and wealthy donors influence policies that affect this distribution and the consequences all of this has for the poor. Yet such films do not meaningfully discuss fundamental ethical concepts such as “moral equality,” “moral status” and “justice.” Instead these ideas are addressed indirectly, often by pulling on religious heartstrings. In Park Avenue, a protestor reproaches Republican Paul Ryan for adopting Ayn Rand’s egoistic economic policy and failing to heed Jesus’ dictate to help the poor. Michael Moore pulls similar religiously motivated heartstrings in Capitalism: A Love Story, offering up religious leaders as spokespersons for morality. Otherwise, such films assume that abstract concepts such as moral equality, dignity and justice are so basic and/or obvious that they don’t merit explicit explanation and discussion, or are simply beyond the film’s parameters. But these ideas are no longer (and perhaps never were, in fact) basic to the American worldview, and it’s time we inspire a real discussion of the just and fair society. We need to do a better job of knowing and discussing fundamental ethical concepts such as “moral equality” and a better job of explaining the moral meanings of the facts.

Moral Equality

Let’s start with “moral equality” a concept so fundamental to the ideals of the United States of America that it’s enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men [sic].”

Obscured by the spectacle of fireworks and patriotic sloganeering that increasingly define the holiday, such talk is strikingly absent from mainstream celebrations of Independence Day. Yet this pivotal document in American history provides a clear moral assertion that “all men” – which we now understand to include all people – are equal in fundamental human worth.

This ethical concept, however basic to American history, is increasingly misunderstood and disavowed. Some contend that the principle of equality creates an unnatural, unjustifiable equality between superiors and inferiors. Isn’t it obvious, some plead, that the medical doctor is not equal in worth to the bus driver, and that the business entrepreneur is superior to the Walmart cashier? The very fact that the doctor and the entrepreneur are successful, many argue, proves they are not equal! Implied in such thinking is this background belief: Our value as people is based upon having a certain amount of education, financial power or mastery of socially exalted talents or skills. Those without these qualities are regarded as being less valuable and, therefore, unequal.

This line of thinking confuses equality of moral worth with equality of social talent or success. Sure, the medical doctor’s knowledge of treating sickness is probably better than the bus driver’s. (Never mind that the bus driver is likely better at driving buses than is the physician!). This is where we should do a better job of saying, “So what’s your point?” For the fact that a medical doctor is better at practicing medicine than a bus driver does not necessarily mean the doctor’s life counts for more than the bus driver’s life. No one is denying that, for example, a bus driver and medical doctor’s knowledge or skill in the field of medicine is unequal. But such discussions of equality have to do with equality in talent not “moral equality” or equality in overall moral status.

Defining Dignity

To have moral status or dignity is to be inherently valuable. Lewis Vaughn writes: “A being with moral status is of moral importance regardless of whether it is a means to something else, and in our dealings with it we must somehow take this fact into account.” Those without moral status are excluded from the circle of moral concern: Thus we can eat them, wear them, break them, cut them, and, put simply, use them anyway we like. Theirs is a purely “instrumental” value.

Perhaps this just brings us back to square one, with the “moral equality” skeptic asking: “so what entitles something or someone to the claim of moral status or dignity?” Throughout history, ruling elites have attempted to rationalize denying moral status to others on the basis of their lacking the possession of “necessary” qualities such as specified intelligence, cultural or familial origins, race-ethnicity, religious identification, sexual orientation, class-economic standing, sex/gender, and political affiliation among others. Most contemporary moral philosophers see these assertions as disguises masking self-centered prejudice. Philosopher Anthony Weston writes:

“There was a time when moral concern only went as far as the walls of a man’s city. Indeed, it didn’t even go that far, as women, children, slaves and non-property-owning males within the walls didn’t count either. Gradually some of these others came to be recognized as moral equals, but each step was a fight. The abolition of slavery took centuries. [And illegal slavery still exists around the world.] Deeply rooted forms of racism and sexism still persist. So does suspicion of outsiders – those not of ‘our’ race or nation or culture – and the willingness to abandon them to whatever misery fate may impose on them.”

Moral status or dignity is not tied to a narrow quality or capacity such as medical, mathematical or linguistic knowledge. The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant provides one of the most respected articulations of the conditions for moral status or dignity (i.e. inner-worth). This status is deserved by all people. But Kant doesn’t mean the biological category – human. By person he means beings who are self-aware, capable of reasoning and making free choices, and, consequently, responsible for one’s actions. Kant asserted that these are the qualities that distinguish those things in the world that are deserving of basic respect from those that are not. What makes an action right is that it treats people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to another’s desired end. As Kant states in his “respect for persons” principle, morality requires that we “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity . . . never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” Actions that objectify, manipulate or otherwise use people against their will are immoral because they conflict with the basic recognition of the freedom and dignity of the person.

Contemporary philosopher Peter Singer offers a more inclusive theory of moral status that exchanges the emphasis on “reasoning” for one emphasizing “sentience” and the basic condition of having “interests.” This includes: “Avoiding pain, developing one’s abilities, satisfying basic needs for food and shelter, enjoying warm personal relationships, freedom to pursue projects without interference.” If we openly and impartially reflect on the question, Singer theorizes, we will recognize that whatever differences we have in terms of our intellectual and/or physical competencies, career paths, economic standing, sexual orientation, race-ethnicity and so on, nearly all humans (and other species as well) share a basic desire for a good life. Our fundamentally shared interests for a good life is what entitles us to moral concern or respect and requires each of us to equally consider the well-being of others in our ethical deliberations.

One way to assess our ideas about what entitles us to moral status – dignity, inherent worth – is to answer these questions: How would you feel if a teacher viciously stomped on an eraser? What if the eraser was made in America or was white rather than black? What if the eraser cried out in pain and was trying to get away? To the extent that it is absurd to suggest our concern for the eraser would increase if we discovered its “color” or “nationality,” it’s clear these are irrelevant to moral status. But it might well be an indication of our humanity to be shocked or disturbed by an eraser crying out in pain as it was thrown across a room. And our reaction would suggest that the capacity to suffer earns something moral status or consideration.

Putting this into context, when morally-motivated critics decry multi-million-dollar companies’ paying workers minimum wage pay on grounds it is unfair, they aren’t saying that people working as cashiers necessarily have an equal talent for business as the CEO. What they’re asserting is that the cashier’s life is no more or less fundamentally valuable than the CEO’s, and that her basic well-being, insofar as it is immediately affected by her job (pay, on-the-job treatment, etc.) ought to be as much a factor in budgetary considerations of a thriving business – that she is contributing her labor to – as the CEO’s.

(Reminding the Powerful of) The Perils of Disavowing Dignity

All of this brings us back to the initial reply by critics of the concept of moral equality: “So what.” When others reject basic humane principles such as the moral status of persons or those with interests, the conversation may well be over. But before we abandon dialogue with our ideological opponents, it’s worth reminding the self-titled superiors of the perils of disavowing universal dignity for persons.

Many believe that talk of moral equality is nonsense and that it is obvious that being more talented in some field or another means that one is not simply superior in talent, but also superior in overall worth. Imagine, Janis rejects the notion that she and Sherry are morally equal because Sherry is less competent in mathematics, for instance. But this “presumption of superiority,” as I call it, is fallacious. As Singer explains, “Racists who maintain [that equal status depends on intelligence] are in peril of being forced to kneel before the next genius they encounter.” This much was clear to US founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who explained that moral equality is not based on “talent.” He wrote, “Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or persons of others.”

There are other reasons the rejection of moral equality via the presumption of superiority is doomed. Even if it were true that some individual or group of individuals were, on average, superior to another in a particular aptitude, this would tell us nothing about the value we should place on such aptitudes. Despite dominant culture’s attempts to pretend it is thoroughly value-neutral, proclamations about the significance of assorted characteristics and skills are statements of value. When someone asserts that Janis deserves greater moral consideration than Sherry because she is superior in mathematics or engineering or linguistics skills, the unstated presumption is that aptitude in these fields corresponds to an elevation in moral worth. The same is true when it’s assumed that someone skilled in engineering is entitled to greater moral consideration than someone skilled in child care, dance, music or painting. But why should we accept any of these assertions? Why does superiority of skill in some culturally exalted intelligence or practice entitle one to superiority of moral consideration? Why should we accept the “commonsense” belief that if you’re a “low-skill” fast-food worker, for instance, you don’t deserve to be paid a “living wage”? Simply put, we shouldn’t. They are just the latest versions of an irrational, inhumane and self-centered ideology seeking to obscure the moral equality we all deserve and can understand.

More than Facts: Fundamental Ethical Ideas/Theory of Value

Facts are essential, but they are not sufficient to understand or address issues of income-inequality. Facts are rather meaningless without applying relevant theories or concepts of value. This is where ethics, the philosophical study of moral values, comes in. Sure the wealthy have chocolate cake coming out of their eye-sockets while the rest of us are fighting each other to lick the plate. But the reply many offer is a simple: “So what?” or “That’s just how it is.” How do we respond? “It’s not fair!” To which many reply, “Life isn’t fair.” But what do we even mean by the words “fair” and “inequality”? Advocates for social justice, be they journalists, activists, students, parents, social workers and the like, need to do more than know and state the facts. We need to embrace and participate in the creative discussion of moral theory and values and how they should shape our understanding of the facts.

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