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Liberty and Equality
Philosophic Reflections on a Free Society
By Tibor R. Machan
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2002 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Meaning of Equality
EQUALITY IS BOTH a descriptive concept and a normative concept. As a descriptive concept, equality is, by definition, an adjectival relation between entities that are identical in some specific respect. No two entities can be identical in all respects, for then they would not be two entities but the same entity. The equality may be one of quantity or quality. Equality may be predicated of things, persons, or social entities such as institutions, groups, and so on.
Equality is also a normative concept. As a normative concept, equality is the notion that there is some special respect in which all human beings are in fact equal (descriptive) but that this factual equality requires that we treat them in a special way. Special treatment may mean ensuring identical treatment, or it may mean differential treatment to restore them to or to aid them in reaching or realizing the specific factual state.
Equality as a normative concept, as we shall soon show, is central to modern political and social debate. All disagreements about equality as a normative concept center on (1) factual claims about the specific sense or senses in which human beings are identical, (2) what constitutes relevant special treatment, that is, which specific senses carry normative weight, and (3) factual claims about which public policies are consistent and coherent with and effective in ensuring the relevant special treatment.
EQUALITY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
The ancients held to an organic and hierarchical conception of the world, one, therefore, that was antiegalitarian. All of nature, including the social world, consists of a series of interlocking entities, each with its own built-in goal. Each entity in turn was a means to the satisfaction of a higher-level goal. The social world was highly stratified to reflect differences of ability that in turn led to differences of function and a corresponding difference in status. The ancient world thus held to the notion of a collective good, that is, a good that was more important than and subsumed all of the lesser goods. This view was reflected in actual social practice, so that even within Athenian democracy, women, slaves, and aliens were excluded from citizenship. The collective good consisted of the survival of the city as an internally self-ruled entity. It was the city, or polis, that was the locus of freedom, understood as self-rule. Freedom was not predicated on individuals. Rather, individuals were fulfilled when they performed their relevant proper function in maintaining the city's freedom. No sharp distinction was made among politics, ethics, and religion. Ultimate fulfillment came within the political order.
Classical political theorists advanced the same view. In Plato's Republic, a just society was identified with a harmonious society, and a harmonious society consisted of one in which the division of labor was exactly correlated with individual differences of ability. Even when Plato seemingly recognized superior women and advocated the equality of women, many scholars have maintained that he did so tongue-in-cheek and ultimately stressed the need for an overriding functional division of labor. For Aristotle, equality meant the "same treatment of similar persons," that is, persons who had the same status. Aristotle was more concerned that those who were unequal be treated differently. Moreover, the demand for equality on the part of those who are unequal or inferior leads, according to Aristotle, to revolution. Among Roman thinkers, the Stoics asserted a form of factual equality in that all men possessed the rational capacity to grasp the universal order, but the Stoics did not draw from this any normative conclusions about altering social status.
Christianity is the origin of the modern conception of equality, but, as we shall see, its full impact does not come into play until the Reformation. Christianity proclaimed the equal moral worth of all persons in the eyes of God. Equality is now understood as intrinsic to the human condition. It is the special respect in which all human beings are in fact equal (descriptive).
Christians drew both on Stoic doctrine and the Hebrew notion from Genesis that all human beings "male and female" were created in the "image of God." The Christian doctrine of equality as expressed by Paul (Galatians 3:26–29) is that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." This view was repeated in Colossians 3:10–11. There are echoes of this conception of equality in Confucianism, Hinduism, and Islam.
The question arises as to what specific normative implications follow from this conception of equality in the medieval Christian context. Recognizing equality among human beings requires that we treat them in a special way. Special treatment may mean ensuring identical treatment, or it may mean differential treatment to restore them to or to aid them in reaching the specific factual state.
To understand how this developed in the medieval Christian context, we need to recognize the political innovation of Christianity. In the words of Eric Voegelin, Christianity dedivinized the state. That is, Christians denied that ultimate human fulfillment was to be achieved through participation in the polis. A distinction is introduced between politics on the one side and religion and ethics on the other. Fulfillment comes though participation in the Church. Christians, then, occupy two "cities," to use Augustine's conception. Whereas the role of the polis in Aristotle was a positive one, namely, to help make human beings good or to achieve fulfillment, the role of the state in Augustine's scheme is negative, namely, to thwart evil, or what we would call maintain law and order. Christian liberty consists in the recognition by the state of the independent status of the Church, and that fulfillment comes within the spiritual domain. This is the origin of the modern conception of limiting the power of the state.
Because fulfillment comes by participation within the Church, Christians have no direct interest in political participation or political rights such as equality before the law. Christians could technically even be slaves. Slavery was held to be a consequence of sin. With regard to membership within the Church, Christians still maintained the classical hierarchical conception. Clergy were distinguished from laypeople. This was not considered a violation of the notion of Christian equality because to achieve salvation, the sacraments needed to be administered by someone in a theologically superior position. Christians were all equally entitled to the special treatment of receiving the sacraments that paved the way to eternal salvation in the next life. Non-Christians were all equally entitled to become Christians and subsequently to receive the sacraments. They were not all equally entitled to administer the sacraments. Moreover, the sacraments could be denied to Christians who had been excommunicated precisely because they threatened the independent existence and integrity of the Church. Becket's conflict with Henry II comes to mind in this context. In short, Christian equality was seen in the medieval period to require special treatment understood in a way that led not to identical treatment but to differential treatment.
Two important consequences of Christian equality were the gradual disappearance of slavery in Europe and the fact that the Church served as the main institution of social mobility. When the issue of slavery with regard to the Native Americans in the New World was debated, it was Aristotle's argument about natural slaves that served as the basis for advocating slavery, and it was the Christian conception of the equality of all before God that served as the basis for opposing slavery. It was now thought that someone who had been baptized, including the native population of the Western Hemisphere, could not be enslaved.
Equality became a central notion with the advent of modernity, specifically the Protestant Reformation. Let us begin with modernity. The difference between the classical viewpoint and the modern viewpoint is the locus of standards. For classical thinkers, including medieval thinkers, all standards whether of truth, goodness, or beauty were structural features of the world external to human beings. What gave authority to some and not to others was the belief that some individuals had direct and immediate access to those external standards (by knowledge or grace). Once those standards were apprehended, our obligation was to conform to them. The object of wisdom was conformity to the natural order of the world.
For modern thinkers, all standards are internal. The apprehension of these internal standards might lead to contact with a transcendent and/or external order (as in Descartes), but the initial apprehension was internal. The internality of standards was reflected in areas as diverse as science, where Copernicus made us aware of the relativity of perception, and art, where Renaissance artists gloried in the exploration of perspective. Moreover, the apprehension of internal standards required that we conform to them, but conformity to internal standards came to mean the transformation of the external world to conform to these internal standards. From commerce to technology to landscape gardening, modernity led to a transformation of the understanding of how individuals relate to the world.
The medieval Aristotelian synthesis in which all of nature and humanity were linked in an interlocking series of organic associations arranged in hierarchical order was rejected. Nature was not an organism but a mechanism created by God, and we as individuals replicated God's creativity by transforming the world through good works (including commerce and industry, not only charity) inspired by the internally apprehended divine vision. There was no collective good to be authoritatively apprehended in nature, only a collection of individually apprehended goods whose continuity and coherence were vouchsafed by God.
In science, in religion, in morals, and in politics, the Aristotelian hierarchical synthesis was challenged. One of the most important challenges was the rejection of the idea of natural political hierarchies, both within the Church and in the secular political sphere. The first and most striking instance was the Protestant attack on the hierarchical notion of the Church. As Luther put it in "To the Christian Nobility" (1520), "It is pure invention that popes, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the 'spiritual estate'. ... There is really no difference. ... it is intolerable that in the canon law so much importance is attached to the freedom, life, property of the clergy. ... Why are your life and limb, property and honor so free, and mine not? ... Whence comes this great distinction between those who are equally Christian? Only from human laws and inventions!" Calvin expressed the full political implications of Reformation Christian equality. Authority derives from voluntary agreement among equals to submit — this is first confined to the organization of the Church and then extended to the entire political sphere. Anabaptists, most notably Thomas Münzer, went even further and asserted complete social equality to be achieved by violence if necessary. In short, modern egalitarianism originated in the Christian notion of equality as reflected within the context of other modern institutions and practices.
The so-called Protestant work ethic promoted the notion of the inner-directed individual, an emphasis on work or achievement, equality before the law and differentiation based on achievement. The insistence on equality before the law was an expression of the notion of Christian liberty. In rejecting a hierarchical conception of the world, Protestants could acquiesce in an arrangement in which the political realm was not subordinate to the religious realm. At the same time, the political realm was obliged to respect the traditional spiritual realm of Christianity. The spiritual realm was now understood in Protestant terms to mean the opportunity to do God's work by transforming the world economically and all of its attendant circumstances. Equality before the law came to mean that there should be no legal barriers to economic activity that did not apply equally to everyone. To place legal barriers to equal participation in the economic realm was to thwart God's plan.
Because not all were equal in their achievement, not all were to be treated in the same manner. There was to be a meritocracy, but the meritocracy was a reflection not of simple personal merit but of divine preordination. It was God, after all, who inspired us and accounted for the differences in achievement. However, higher status was more likely to be accompanied by a sense of greater responsibility, not by the privileges of self-indulgence.
This specifically Calvinist notion of political and legal equality influenced the Dutch, British, and American Revolutions. The Calvinist and Anabaptist influences converged in the English Civil War, specifically in a group known as the Levellers. The Levellers' membership reflected what we would now call the rising middle classes — small property owners, tradesmen, artisans, and apprentices. They produced a vast pamphlet literature in which, among other things, John Lilburne asserted the notion that no one has authority without consent. In a famous debate held at Putney (suburb of London) in 1647 with the officers at the Army Council meeting, speaking on behalf of the Levellers, Colonel Rainborough asserted that "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he"; no one is obliged to obey a government "he hath not had a voice to put himself under." An irate Ireton responded on behalf of the officers that because the poor could outvote the rich, "why may not those men vote against all property?" Hence we get the derogatory expression Levellers, although this was certainly a misrepresentation of their views. The Levellers, being serious Protestants, wanted to deny the franchise to all those whom they considered lacking in moral independence, such as almstakers and house servants.
A much more radical group were the so-called Diggers. Their spokesperson Gerrard Winstanley rejected private property as a reflection of original sin and claimed that "one man hath as much rights to the earth as another." He attributed the existence of poverty to exploitation by the rich, and advocated a form of agrarian communism.
The difference between the Levellers and the Diggers is a significant one and heralds an ongoing dialectic in the development of modern notions of equality. We might designate this as the difference between a relative equality and an absolute equality. Relative egalitarianism is the position that some specific existing practice or institution is unjust because it fosters inequality of treatment based on irrelevant differences. Absolute egalitarianism is the advocacy of a total equality that seems to entail a collective conception of the good in which the individual good is subsumed.
What the Levellers challenged was the political power structure and not the economic and social system. Their challenge was a consistent expression both of the religious dimension of Calvinism and of the commitment to doing God's work in an increasingly market-oriented society. The Diggers, on the other hand, reflected the medieval Anabaptist call for complete equality within a feudal agrarian economy still committed to the notion of a collective good. The Levellers adhered to the Platonic-Augustinian insight that we live in two cities so that given original sin this world would always be an imperfect reflection of the City of God. Poverty was a result of a lack of moral independence that, in turn, was a result of original sin. The Diggers asserted the immanentization of the eschaton, so that not only were individuals not responsible for their own poverty but also that some sort of social utopia was possible here on earth.
Protestants during this period saw an important connection between politics and economics. The desire for political equality, that is, government by consent, did not reflect any desire to exercise power for power's sake or to remake society. On the contrary, Protestants were largely focused on protecting the private sphere and the spiritual dimension from political corruption. Rather the connection they perceived between politics and economics derived from the fact that government controlled large parts of the economy (granting privileges such as monopolies, sinecures, land grants, etc.) so that political equality led to economic equality. Economic equality meant the liberty to pursue God's work in this world, not an equal distribution of the spoils. Part of that political equality was equality before the law.
Excerpted from Liberty and Equality by Tibor R. Machan. Copyright © 2002 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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