Thursday, February 26, 2015

Equality for Equals

The conflict over whether a government should promote virtue in its citizens or only protect their liberty stands as the most fundamental difference between conservatism and all varieties of liberalism. A similar controversy exists on the related question of equality.

As in other posts, Aristotle serves as the best starting point for exploring the question of equality.

In contrast to other posts, Aristotle on this question made a bit of a false start.

As Greeks looked about at other peoples around the Mediterranean, they developed sense of their own superiority. (This should not be surprising. Almost all groups believe they are superior to others.) One particular contrast they noted, however, was the apparent docility of the peoples of the near east living under tyrannies. The situation was so widespread that it seemed natural, i.e., as part of their nature. This led Aristotle to reach false conclusions regarding human equality.

In the opening chapter of The Politics, when addressing the question if slavery violated nature, Aristotle writes, “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

Aristotle's ancient error persisted until modern times.

As suggested already in an earlier post, human beings are equal in their humanity. They possess the same human nature and have the same human needs. We know this from modern biological science.

One aspect of human nature—a free will, or the ability to deliberate over different desires and to choose different courses of action-- accounts for the distinctiveness of individual personalities and differences in cultural practices. More importantly, when humans exercise their wills in pursuit of the desires and courses of action, all kinds of inequalities emerge.

So although all humans possess natural equality, over the course of their lives people come to have acquired inequalities. We see people manifest different degrees of achievement in education, business, politics, and sports-- just to name a few. When these inequalities emerge from circumstances free from artificial enhancements that benefit some person's thriving and obstructs that of others, conservatives see those inequalities as just. Under such circumstances, everyone's varying degrees of educational honor, socio-economic status, and athletic achievement are their due—what is owed them. This is where Aristotle is correct: justice is rewarding people according to their due.

In Aristotle's words,

“It is thought that justice is equality, and so it is. But not for all persons; only for those who are equal. Inequality also is thought be be just. And so it is. But not for all; only for the unequal.”

Aristotle—and most conservatives today—see reward as something that should be explicitly tied to virtue or merit.

In contrast, liberals seem to seek some other reasons for inequality than the relative merits of persons. They blame the capitalist economic structure, the wealthy, overt racism, institutional racism, or some ill-defined “forces of history.” Rather than apply some standard of justice to individuals and their accumulated decisions, liberals find injustice in external circumstances beyond the control of individuals.

Consequently, liberals attempt to erect artificial enhancements such as seniority, affirmative action, quotas, minimum wage hikes against virtue or merit--all designed to burden the thriving for the benefit of the languishing.


CW said...

It doesn’t take liberals long to figure out that gov’t interference “for the benefit of the languishing” can easily be parlayed into gov’t interference for the benefit of voter constituencies.

I may be misreading this one but I kind of disagree with Aristotle on the nature of equality. I think there are an abundance of natural inequalities in addition to acquired inequalities. These include things like health, size, gender, intelligence, appearance, talent, temperament and family circumstances. No one is really equal to another from the moment they’re born, due to their innate advantages or disadvantages. That’s one reason why I find the Left’s supposed quest for equality to be so preposterous.

RightDetour said...

Aristotle did not write much about what human beings bring into the world. He mostly focused on what they did with their lives after their arrival.

You are correct in noting some of the obvious natural inequalities that come with us at birth--suggest as physical size. Regarding intelligence--I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be some genetic component to intelligence but right now it is too difficult to identify and separate innate attributes from what individuals do with those attributes. Both William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton grew up in illiterate households. What we are to make of that is anyone's guess.

RightDetour said...

The most important inequalities are acquired. Even if humans were born equal in every physical and intellectual aspect or the government could take away every advantage that family circumstances bring, we would still have inequality. The left's quest for equality is indeed preposterous.