Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Equality, Virtue, and Liberty

Samuel Gregg at The Federalist argues that the American obsession with equality is dangerous and potentially fatal to our democracy. Drawing on Alexis de Toqueville's magisterial study of 19th century America, Democracy in America (1835/1840), Gregg wonders whether American democracy's emphasis on equality might not eventually make the whole experiment come undone.

He writes:
Democracy’s emphasis on equality helps to break down many unjust forms of discrimination and inequality. Women gradually cease, for instance, to be regarded as inherently inferior. Likewise, the fundamental injustice of slavery becomes harder and harder to rationalize.

At the same time, as Tocqueville scholar Pierre Manent has observed, democracies gravitate toward a fascination with producing total equality. Democracy requires everyone to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. We consequently start seeing and disliking any disparity contradicting this equality of conditions. Equality turns out to be very antagonistic to difference per se, even when differences are genetic (such as between men and women) or merited (some are wealthier because they freely assume more risks).
In other words, we've made equality a kind of golden calf to which we bow down and worship. If equality is good, we've decided, then total, absolute equality must be better. Thus, we find ourselves obliterating all distinctions and all judgments of better or worse. We don our social and psychological Mao suits, loath to acknowledge any differences among us.

But this obsession with equality as sameness cripples our ability to inculcate virtue:
The idea of virtue implies that there are choices whose object is always good and others that are wrong in themselves. Courage is always better than recklessness and cowardice. But language such as “better than,” or “superior to” is intolerable to egalitarianism of the leveling kind. That’s one reason why many people in democratic societies prefer to speak of “values.” Such language implies that (1) all values are basically equal, and (2) there’s something impolite if not downright wrong with suggesting that some purportedly ethical commitments are irrational and wrong.
Virtue, however, is inseparable, in the U.S., at least, from Christianity. Thus, if virtue is to be diluted to a kind of bland "values clarification" Christian religion must be emasculated, shrunken to a meaningless series of church suppers and insipid sermons.

This is ironic since the concept of human equality is rooted in the Christian belief that all men are created by God who cares equally about each of us. No naturalistic or secular ground for the doctrine of human equality exists, it's not derivable from Darwinism nor secular reason, and indeed, prior to the rise of Christianity the notion of human equality would've been unintelligible.

The concept of equality before God (and before the civil law), however, has in our secular age been conflated with the concept of absolute sameness which is no part of its original meaning. Unless we return to that original meaning, Gregg argues, we will lose not only the concept of equality, but also whatever remnants of virtue remain as well as the religious belief that grounds both virtue and equality.

When that happens tyranny and the loss of our liberties will not be far behind.

Read more of Gregg's argument at the link.