August 6, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

    One of the trickiest philosophical questions is human equality. How we see and answer it affects our political stance–what we say and how we act–in the world. Americans are familiar with the ringing line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” For all its familiarity, Americans must also have wondered, “How is it self-evident?” Much later, in 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations expressed the same sentiment in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its Preamble begins with “recognition of the inherent dignity... of all members of the human family.”Again, in 1997, UNESCO affirms the inherent dignity of all “members of the human family” in its Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights.

    America’s Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. Did those present at the Continental Congress argue heatedly over the assertion that all men are created equal? Apparently not. This was not so surprising since, for all their political differences, the founders came from the same basic cultural and social background. But what about the Universal Declarations of 1948 and 1997? They were sponsored by the United Nations, an extremely heterogeneous body, members of which could hardly agree on anything. Nonetheless, they were able to affirm the “inherent dignity of all members of the human family.” No doubt a few on the drafting committee muttered about being bullied into agreement by their Western colleagues, but even they couldn’t muster the indignity to object. Somehow they knew in their hearts that they won’t look good if they did. Human equality is apparently just one of those things one has to accept. It is a first principle. To the question, What backs it up? the answer has to be, it cannot be another humanly-devised principle. It has to be something not quite of this world–religion.

    In the Western world, that religion is Judeo-Christian. It says that the human being is made in the image of God, or is a child of God. It doesn’t say that only the perfect human–a superman like King David–is made in God’s image or is his child. Rather, we all are–we are all equidistant from God, to put this idea of human equality in another, more negative way. Christianity reinforced the idea with Christ as God incarnate. Many of us ask, “How can we be equal when some are strong, some weak, some dumb, some articulate, some beautiful, some ugly, filthy, and even a bit revolting, some full of faith, some full of doubt?” Well, to Christians, the answer is, “The Son of God himself embodied all these states of being. As infant he was inarticulate and didn’t have many ideas in his head; as youth and young man he was good-looking and eloquent; as wayfarer on dusty roads and possibly even in prison he probably was covered in stale, ill-smelling sweat; as torn flesh on the cross he seemed momentarily to have lost his faith.” The implication is that we humans may be all these states ourselves, including those considered undesirable, and still retain our dignity, still be a child of God, still be equal.

    But what about mass murderers, child rapists, the Eichmanns and Hitlers of the world? Surely we don’t assign dignity–much less equal dignity--to them! Curiously we do–at least we in the Western democracies do. As evidence, we try to give even mass murderers, even Eichmann, a fair trial. Their basic human dignity and, more importantly, our dignity demands that we do. (See Gilbert Meilaender, Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person, 2009).

Best wishes,



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