The Equalities to Which We Are Entitled

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

This chapter, as its title indicates, runs parallel to Chapter 20. There we were concerned with the liberties to which we are entitled; here with the equalities that we have a right to — the equalities that justice requires.

The parallelism should enable readers to surmise at once the basis for our entitlement to certain equalities. Just as with the liberties to which we have a natural right, so here with respect to the equalities that we can rightfully claim, the ultimate basis of the right lies in the nature of man.

If human beings were not by nature endowed with freedom of the will and the power of free choice, to be exercised in the pursuit of the ultimate good that they are morally obliged to seek, they would not have, by nature, a right to liberty of action. If they were not by nature political animals, they would not have by nature the right to political liberty. Their right to these liberties lies in the fact that deprivation of them renders their power of free choice ineffective in the pursuit of happiness and frustrates their natural inclination to participate in political affairs.

The equalities to which we are all entitled, by virtue of being human, are circumstantial, not personal. They are equalities of condition — of status, treatment, and opportunity. How does our humanity justify our right to these equalities?

The answer is that, by being human, we are all equal — equal as persons, equal in our humanity. One individual cannot be more or less human than another, more or less of a person. The dignity we attribute to being a person rather than a thing is not subject to differences in degree. The equality of all human beings is the equality of their dignity as persons.

Were all human beings not equal in their common humanity, did they not all equally have the dignity of persons, they would not all be entitled to equalities of condition. The point is strikingly illustrated by an ancient and erroneous doctrine (which, by the way, takes many disguised forms in the modern world) that some human beings are by nature slaves and so are radically inferior to other human beings who are by nature their masters. If this view of the facts were correct, as it is not, all human beings would not be entitled to any equality of condition — equality of status, treatment, and opportunity.

The factual basis for the correct view is biological. All members of any biological species, human or otherwise, are alike in possessing the properties or powers that are genetically determined attributes of that species of living organism. These common properties, shared by all individuals of a certain species, are appropriately called species-specific. Of these species-specific properties, some are generic, shared by other animals; such, for example, in the case of human beings, are their vegetative and sensitive powers. Only some of man’s species-specific properties consist of powers that are not generic, but being distinctive and definitive of the human species, differentiate human beings as different in kind from other animals.

To say that all human beings are equal in their common humanity is, therefore, to say that all have the same species-specific properties, both those that are generic properties shared by other animals and those that are distinctive and definitive of the human species, such as man’s power of free choice and his power of conceptual thought.

The statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights is not, on the face of it, self-evidently true. Nor can it be made self-evident by substituting “are by nature equal” for “created equal,” and “endowed by nature with certain unalienable rights” for “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The truth of the statement, even when the substitutions are made, is the truth of a conclusion reached by reasoning in the light of factual evidence, evidence and reasoning that refutes the ancient doctrine that some human beings (all members of the same species) are by nature slaves.

I am not going to present here the evidence and expound the reasoning that establishes the truth of the conclusion that all human beings, as members of the species Homo sapiens, are ipso facto equal. I have done that in another book, entitled The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes.

The conclusion there reached is that man differs in kind, not merely in degree, from other animal organisms, which means that while he has certain generic properties shared by them, with respect to which he may differ in degree from them, human beings also have certain distinctive properties that only they possess and that all other animals totally lack. It is the having and not having of these distinctive human powers that differentiates human beings in kind from other animals.

The truth of the proposition that all human beings are by nature equal is confined to the one respect in which that equality can be truly affirmed; namely, their all being equally human, their having the species-specific properties and especially the differentiating properties that belong to all members of the species.

There is no other respect in which all human beings are equal. Two or more individuals may be personally equal in some other respect, such as height, intelligence, talent, or virtue, but equality in such respects is never true of all.

The contrary is true. When we consider all members of the human species, we find that, in every respect other than their possession of the same species-specific properties and powers, inequalities in degree prevail. In other words, though all human beings have the same generic and specifically distinctive properties and powers, some will have them to a higher, some to a lower, degree than others.

Individual members of the species differ from one another either by innate endowment, genetically determined, or by voluntary attainment, individually acquired. From these individual differences arise the inequalities in degree that make one individual superior or inferior to another in some particular respect.

One individual, by nature equal to another in kind, which means equal through having the same species-specific properties, may be by nature unequal to another in degree, which means being genetically endowed with a higher or lower degree — with more or less — of the properties or powers that both possess at birth. In addition, one may be superior or inferior to another in individually acquired attainments as well as in genetically determined endowments. This may wholly result from differences in individual effort; but it may also be partly due to the favorable or unfavorable circumstances under which the individual strives to accomplish something.

For brevity of reference, let us use the phrase “specific equality” to refer to the personal equality in kind that is the one equality possessed by all human beings. Let us use the phrase “individual equality” or “individual inequality” to refer to the personal equality and inequality of human beings in all other respects, whether that be equality and inequality in degree of endowments or equality and inequality in degree of attainments.

From the declarative statement about the specific equality in kind of all human beings, what prescription follows? The answer is that all human beings are in justice or by right entitled to a circumstantial equality in kind, especially with respect to political status, treatment, and opportunity and with respect to economic status, treatment, and opportunity.

Being by nature equal, they are all endowed by nature with certain unalienable rights, unalienable because they are inherent in man’s specific nature, not merely bestowed upon man by legal enactment. Legal enactment may be necessary to secure these rights, but it does not constitute their unalienability.

Merely legal rights are alienable. Being granted by the state, they can be taken away by the state. Natural rights can be secured or violated by the state, but they do not come into existence through being granted by the state; nor does their existence cease when they are not acknowledged or secured by the laws of the state.

As we have seen, human beings, having by nature the power of free choice, have a natural and unalienable right to liberty of action. Being also by nature political animals, they have a natural and unalienable right to political liberty and participation. Justice requires that all should be accorded the equal status of citizenship with suffrage, through which status they can exercise their power to participate in government. All citizens have this power. It is totally lacking in those who, being disfranchised, are deprived of it. Having this power to some degree confers upon all citizens with suffrage a circumstantial equality in kind. Between those who have it and those who are deprived of it, there is a circumstantial inequality in kind.

Turning now from the political to the economic sphere, parallel reasoning reaches a parallel conclusion. Both as an animal generically, and as a specifically human animal, man has certain biological needs, such as his need for the means of subsistence in order to survive, and his need for certain comforts and conveniences of life, which he needs to live humanly well. Economic goods are the goods that man by nature needs in order to survive and, beyond that, to live well — to engage successfully in the pursuit of happiness,

These include more than food and drink, clothing and shelter. They include schooling as instrumental to fulfilling man’s need for knowledge and skill; a healthful environment as instrumental to fulfilling man’s need for health; ample free time from toil or earning a living as instrumental to fulfilling man’s need to engage in play for the pleasure of it and in the pursuits of leisure for the improvement of his mind by engagement in all forms of learning and creative activity.

From these natural needs for the goods mentioned and for the goods that are instrumental to achieving them arises man’s natural right to the possession of that sufficiency of economic goods which is enough for living well — for making a good life. The existence of natural right leads us to the conclusion that every human being is entitled to whatever economic goods any human being needs to lead a good life.

Just as all human beings are entitled to a political equality in kind, so they are all entitled to an economic equality in kind.

All should be haves with respect to political liberty, none have-nots, none disfranchised persons totally deprived of the power of political participation that a political animal needs.

All should be haves with respect to wealth in the form of whatever economic goods a human being needs to live well, at least that sufficiency of such goods which is enough for the purpose. None can be have-nots in the sense of being totally deprived of such goods, for total deprivation means death. But none should be destitute — have-nots in the sense of being deprived of enough wealth to live well.

In both the political and economic sphere, justice requires only as much equality of conditions as human beings have a natural right to on the basis of their natural needs. The statement of the matter just made occupies a middle position between the two extremist views mentioned earlier.

At one extreme, the libertarian maintains that the only circumstantial equality to which all human beings are entitled is equality of opportunity. He argues for this view on the ground that such equality tends to maximize individual liberty of action, especially freedom of enterprise in the economic sphere.

The libertarian rightly thinks that attempts on the part of organized society to establish an equality of economic condition other than an equality of opportunity will inevitably result in government regulations and interferences in economic activities that restrict individual liberty of action and put curbs on freedom of enterprise. Where he is wrong is in failing to see that such curtailments of freedom, made in the interests of justice, are proper limitations of liberty. His error lies in asking for more liberty than justice allows.

At the opposite extreme, the egalitarian maintains that the circumstantial equality to which all human beings are entitled should not be merely an equality in kind that is accompanied by inequalities in degree. It should be more than that. It should be the extreme form of circumstantial equality, which is an equality of condition attended by no inequalities in degree.

Stated in political terms, this would mean that all should be haves in the sense of having political liberty and power, but no individual should have more, and none less, of the power that all should have because it is requisite for participation in political life.

Stated in economic terms, this would mean that all should be haves with respect to wealth in the form of the economic goods needed to live humanly well, but also that all should have the same amount of wealth. None should have more, and none less, of the wealth that everyone needs for the successful pursuit of happiness.

The middle position between these erroneous extremes, in both the political and the economic spheres, calls for a moderate, not an extreme, form of circumstantial equality. With regard to the possession of political or economic goods, real goods that every human being needs, it calls for no more than everyone is entitled to by natural right. It is willing to settle for no less.

A moderate or justly limited equality of conditions is an equality in kind, with respect to either political or economic goods, but one that is accompanied by inequalities in degree that justice also requires. Justice requires only that all shall be haves. It does not require that all shall be haves to the same degree. On the contrary, as the next chapter will attempt to make clear, some are entitled by justice to more, and some to less, of the goods that everyone is entitled by justice to have.

Two additional reasons can be given for rejecting the wrong prescription concerning equality of conditions that the egalitarian recommends on the basis of man’s specific personal equality.

First of all, he appears to forget that the specific equality of all members of the human species is accompanied by individual inequalities of all sorts, both in endowments and attainments and in what use individuals make of their endowments and attainments.

Human individuals are not all equal in the way that so many precision-made ball bearings are alike — identical with one another in every respect except number, all having the same properties without any difference in degree. Unlike the ball bearings, which of course have no individuality at all, human individuality consists of individual differences that result in one person’s having more or less of the same attributes that also belong to another.

To recommend the prescription that all human beings are entitled to a circumstantial equality of conditions, political and economic, that should involve no differences in degree is to neglect or overlook the existence of significant individual inequalities in degree among human beings. These personal inequalities in degree call for circumstantial inequalities in degree, just as our personal equality in kind calls for circumstantial equality in kind.

The error being made by the egalitarian arises in the same way as the one made by the elitist who neglects or overlooks the personal equality in kind of all human beings. On the sole basis of personal inequalities in degree, the elitist recommends circumstantial inequality in degree with respect to political and economic goods. He rejects the recommendation of any circumstantial equality in kind, except perhaps equality of opportunity. The elitist makes that one exception because he believes that, in the race of life, the superior will win.

Elitism can be avoided without going to the opposite extreme of egalitarianism, simply by rendering what is in justice due human beings by reference to their personal equality without overlooking their individual inequalities and by reference to their individual inequalities without ignoring their personal equality. In recent history, the most glaring and egregious example of an egalitarian overreaction against elitism is provided by the cultural revolution to which China was subjected under the gang of four.

A second reason for rejecting the extremism of the egalitarian looks not to its injustice, but to its practical unfeasibility.

It is possible for miscarriages of justice to occur that would permit liberty to run rampant beyond limits and to become injurious license. The libertarian extreme is feasible, but not the egalitarian extreme. More liberty than justice allows is possible in society, but more equality than justice requires cannot be sustained.

To recommend that all should be haves with respect to political liberty and power, but that none should have more and none less, is to recommend a form of direct democracy so extreme that it would allow no distinction whatsoever between citizens in or out of public office — a democracy in which there are no magistrates, one in which everything is decided directly by a majority vote of the whole citizenry.

It is doubtful whether such extreme democracy ever existed, in Athens or in New England townships. It certainly would not be practically feasible in any state of considerable size; having a population so large that all its members could not deal with each other face to face, nor when confronted with the complexity of problems that states and governments must deal with in the contemporary world.

In the economic sphere, to recommend that all should be haves with respect to wealth in the form of whatever economic goods human beings need to live well, but that none should be richer and none poorer in their possession of wealth, is to recommend an equality of conditions that has never existed, except perhaps in monasteries where the monks, taking the vow of poverty, participate equally in what wealth is available for the community as a whole.

If, under secular conditions, all individuals or all families were somehow to come into possession of the same amount of wealth, in whatever form, that absolute equality of economic condition would not last for long. A magic wand would be needed, not only to bring it into existence, but also to make it endure. No one has ever worked out a plan whereby, short of magic, this extreme form of economic equality might become feasible.

From Six Great Ideas, Chapter 22

To Part III: The Inequalities That Justice Also Requires

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