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What Makes Us Equal?

September 10, 2018

The American Declaration of Independence contains the remarkable claim that “all men are created equal” (today we would replace the word “men” with “people”). All of our laws are based on this principle. Everyone is supposed to be treated the same in the workplace, the marketplace, and the court of law. Justice is supposed to be blind to our income, ethnicity, and gender. When our society fails to treat everyone the same, we loudly claim that this is wrong. Nearly all of us take the principle of human equality for granted.

But what is it that makes us equal? We are not equal in intelligence, ability, appearance, or health. So in what way are we equal? Our value as human beings? But how are we equal in value? We vary in our productivity and in the benefit we provide to society. We differ in our willingness to abide by moral norms and in the level of harm or discomfort we create. So in what way do we all have the same value?

Even today, not all societies believe that we are all equal based on some sort of intrinsic value. Throughout history, nearly all societies would have denied such a notion. Men have been viewed as more valuable than women; royalty more valuable than commoners; masters more valuable than slaves; citizens more valuable than foreigners. But then came this radical idea that everyone–regardless of class or gender or ability or morality or race–is equal. It has been a powerful idea. It has been viewed as a profoundly moral idea, overthrowing the older notions of society and law.

But where did this radical notion come from? Not science. Where then? It is a spiritual idea.

Human equality is based on the belief that all human beings share the same God-given dignity. Equality is not something we have discovered through some sort of measurement or investigation or scientific method; rather, it is something we embrace based on a spiritual belief. The Declaration of Independence itself claims it is “self-evident” that we are equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. If we take away this spiritual basis for human equality, equality vanishes.

Yuval Harari, in his popular book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, states that there is no objective basis for our belief in human equality. “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” I would agree. This particular spiritual idea that we are all equal has enabled unprecedented levels of social cooperation and the betterment of humans all around the world. But Harari considers such an idea as essentially a fiction, and therefore fragile. “The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.”

But this puts Harari, who is an atheist, in a dilemma. He claims that an “imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population–and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces–truly believe in it.” But how can we believe in a superhuman order if we also believe it is only a human-made fiction? We can’t. To build and maintain a society we have to truly believe–just just pretend to believe–in a superhuman or spiritual order. Specifically, to believe in human equality we have to believe it is an idea that transcends us, that it is true in a way that is deeper than merely social agreement.

To believe in human equality is to believe that truth is greater than materialism or naturalism. As we strive for ever-more sublime visions of human (and animal) well-being, we are groping toward a deeper reality. We are striving toward notions of goodness and justice that have no objective existence in our universe, but are nonetheless true.

Modernism, which limits truth to naturalism, ultimately leads to atheism and the denial of human equality. Postmodernism, which claims there is no basis for truth at all–that there is only preference and power–leads to agnosticism, tolerance for anything, and nihilism. These two philosophies are ultimately empty. They do not and cannot create well-being. But a spiritual approach to life–that the deepest truths transcend us and nature itself–has the potential to lead us to meaning and well-being. Indeed, a spiritual approach to life is the only viable approach to life, the only way to be social beings, and it is our only hope for equality.

For this reason, we are all more spiritual than we think we are–regardless of our claims of being atheists or agnostics. Thankfully, we are always undergirded by a spiritual givenness. So let’s embrace it–and grow.

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