Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By Nature Equal: How Are Men Created Equal? Definitions

THE EQUALITY OF MAN IS A MODERN commonplace, a deep-seated, deeply-held convention among all of us in the Western world: indeed, perhaps it is something that extends universally, in various degrees, among men as a fundamental moral truth, one may almost say a self-evident one. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" rolls off our tongues as gingerly as the Twelve Tables rolled off Cicero's, or the adhān off the lips of an Arabic muezzin. Pace Jefferson and his mellifluous Declaration of Independence that continues to inspire with its rhetoric and its doctrine, that men are created equal is not, in a strict philosophical sense, self-evident, i.e., a fact that requires no proof. As the German jurist Arnold Brecht put it:
Sometimes the eighteenth-century argument that all men . . . are "born equal" is still heard today in the somewhat more precise form that . . . all men are by birth "in the same plight." . . . This [argument] needs proof in order to be scientifically acceptable. It is not self-evident. On the contrary, it obviously needs correction or modification, for it would prove much more than merely the equality of human beings: all animals are in the same plight from birth.
(p. 38, quoting Arnold Brecht, Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, 309-11)) Human equality would appear to be a moral truth; it does not appear to be an empirical truth at all, but a spiritual or philosophical or moral one, one beyond the pale of one-dimensional materialism. "Moral powers are nonempirical." (p. 38) Science shall never convince us of man's fundamental equality; its only suggestions are, as we shall see, constrained by their materialism, trivial, and so unable to answer the question in any satisfactory sense. Modernity's insistence on human autonomy, on existential self-definition, has made the problem of discovering what it is that makes us equal even worse. If we have the power to define who we are (existence over essence as these folks insist) do we share anything at all that may be said to be equal? Yet we insist, with a fervor and zeal akin to faith, and we maintain and declare, no less than the Jew his Shema Yisrael or the Muslim his Shahada, that men are fundamentally equal. And if one were to say in public that men are not equal, but by nature unequal, he would be treated as a pariah, right next to a Holocaust denier.

But the problem persists: How many of us, despite our mumbling of this credo, can state or express in what this fundamental equality consists? Is it reason? That is the most frequent candidate. But are we not unequal in the gifts of reason? How can something that is so manifestly variant be the source for equality? Why should an Einstein be treated equal to a man with a lobotomy? What is often even more inexplicable, is that those most insistent on equality of result (those who push for prescriptive or normative equality), such as the liberal egalitarians and relativists like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, have the least to say about what it is that makes men equal and the least justification for their leftist political agendas. What they say is either banal or is simply uncritically assumed. In some cases, they admit they are still looking for that elusive descriptive equality upon which their prescriptive political policies supposedly rely. (John Rawls famously wrote "we still need a natural basis for equality." Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 508 (p. 24))

And then there are the outright deconstructionists, modern sophists and cynics, who deconstruct, that is destroy, by prying, prying, and prying shared values until nobody believes anything anymore.

Guided by a fascinating book entitled By Nature Equal: The Anatomy of a Western Insight (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) by Berkeley Professor John E. Coons and Villanova Law School Professor Patrick M. Brennan, we shall explore two men's answer to this important question. What is it that we mean when we say that all men and women are equal? They seek the answer, not in sociological, political, or empirical, or idealistic ways. They seek, and they offer, an ontological, philosophical and universal definition of what we mean by human equality.

Professor John E. Coons

We shall spend this first blog posting addressing some important distinctions and definitions.

First of all, we must come to terms with the notion of relation. Coon and Brennan insist: "Equality is, indeed, some kind of relation." (p. 8) What is a relation? It is something real (that is something more than just a word, something extra-mental) that arises only between two or more persons. If there is just one of us, there is no relation between us and another, and it is senseless to talk of equality. One cannot be equal with himself, he must be equal in reference to another. That is why equality, if it exists, must be a relation. Relations of all kinds exist. For example, if I become a father, then there is a relation between my daughter or son and me that did not exist before I became a father. If I become the owner of a house, a develop a relation with a thing that did not exist before. This relation of father-daughter, or of homeowner, is something real, something more than a concept in one's mind. Similarly, there is a relation between me and every other human being, a relation of equality. Though it is something different and other than the ontological persons between which it exists, a relation is nevertheless something real, a tertium quid, a third thing between two or more persons. One has to accept the existence of a relation, despite the fact that it eludes classification, resists analysis, and even (among the philosophical nominalists such as William of Ockham) belief as something real. And yet, Friar Bill, it moves, e pur si muove!

With respect to the term equality, we must first distinguish between two general types of equality: descriptive equality and prescriptive or normative equality. The difference between these two kinds of equality is perhaps the difference between is and ought. Descriptive equality is an equality that is among men. Coons and Brennan adopt a definition by Peter Westen for descriptive equality when they define it as the "comparitive relationship that obtains between two or more distinct persons or things by virtue of their having been jointly measured by a relevant standard of comparison and found to be undistinguishable by that standard." (p. 24) (citing Peter Westen, Speaking of Equality: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Force of "Equality" in Moral and Legal Discourse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 39) On the other hand, prescriptive equality attempts to answer the question of how humans ought to be, not how humans are. Thus, when people talk of equal distribution (such as when then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama told "Joe the Plumber" "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody") or affirmative action so as to equalize for past or alleged past injustices or grievances we are dealing with prescriptive or normative equality. The only equality we are interested in here is descriptive equality. What relation is it that exists that makes us equal? Not what can we do to make us equal (If such a thing is even desirable)? We are not interested at this time in going down the path of egalitarianism or its justification, its merits or its demerits.

When it comes to descriptive equality we must also distinguish between false, trivial, double, and human equalities.

Professor Patrick McKinley Brennan

A claimed equality is false when it is an attribution that is made to an individual, isolated self, a singleton, an autonomous individual outside of any relation. This follows from the view that equality is a relation. There must be two or more persons of which equality speaks for it to be true; otherwise, it is false. Thus, the statement: "Equality is the capacity of an individual for reasoned choice" (p. 10) This is a statement of false equality because it is not made in reference to another person.

A claimed equality is trivial when it refers to a property that is possessed (or that is not possessed) by, or is common to, two or more persons without reference to degree of such possession. We may say that two people possess reason, or wealth, or any other quality or thing. While these are statements of equality they end up being trivial because it turns out that, more important than the invariant quality of possession, is the variable degree of possession, and the degree of possession is almost always is unequal. It is the proverbial tail (equal possession) wagging the dog (unequal degree of possession). This means that the fact of possession is trivial in comparison to the degree of possession and so becomes trivial as an expression of equality. So when we say that the village idiot and Albert Einstein both possess reason and therefore are equal, it is manifest that the degree of reason varies wildly between them to the point where the difference in degree in reason between them pales the common possession of reason and so the shared or common relation is trivial. The equality between them is likewise trivial. To be adequate as a description of equality, the quality or capacity we reference must be one that is equal in both possession and degree. That is, it must be a double equality of possession and degree, and not a single equality of possession alone. Which brings us to our next definition. But before we go there, we need to pause and address a popular error among liberals in the issue of descriptive equality.

Liberals (or perhaps just good Kantians) such as John Wilson, or, more notoriously, Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy have often pointed to the asserted ability of man to be autonomous as the source for descriptive equality. Thus men are equal because, in the words of John Wilson, "every man has an equal ability to frame his own world view," a claim that is "a factual one." Or in the words of Associate Justice Kennedy in his opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment ["equal protection"]. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
Can such moral relativism, such extreme autonomy be the basis for human equality? The short answer (assuming such moral relativism even exists or makes sense) is "no" because the descriptive equality asserted is a false equality. It is a false equality because it relates to an individual equality, not a relational one. Moreover, even if somehow re-written so as to be relational (e.g., the common possession of all individuals to define the good for themselves), it is a trivial equality because it is a single equality and not double. It is an equality the degree of which varies among men:
If rational humans were free to invent the terms of morality, there would, indeed, be a form of equality existing among them. Unfortunately it would be a wholly trivial equality . . . . [Such an equality] among autonomous selves is one of possession only; it is a single, not a double equality. Indeed, if humans all have this crucial property--this capacity to justify a choice simply by making it--they will have it in wildly varying degrees. . . and these abilities are dramatically variant. If value is self-determined, those who by nature or circumstance are relatively more creative in devising alternatives will have a wider set of life options. Humans will not be equal, but unequal.
(p. 30) The homosexual libertine, who answers to no one but himself, will be invariably possess more of this autonomy than a mother who takes care of her household of five children. (Here one sees how perverse it is to build a notion of equality on an alleged autonomy to define one's morality. Such a notion rewards the vicious and the selfish and punishes the virtuous and the selfless.)

A double equality is an equality that is shared or possessed by two persons in the same degree. Thus we have a relation of equality both of possession and degree. Two Olympians who tie for first place in the 100 meter dash have a relation of double equality in the relation of swiftness, as they possess the property in equal degree. While such double equalities are common among limited persons or groups (for example humans with an IQ of 100), they are often inadequate when applied to the race as a whole (where there are humans with an IQ of below 100 and humans with an IQ of above 100). Often, a double equality can be adduced among all humans that is trivial (e.g., that all men have an X chromosome).

Human equality is a special form of double equality that Coons and Brennan seek to find, and claim that they do find in their book. Ultimately, they identify human equality as the "relation arising from the uniform capacity of rational persons to perfect themselves morally by committing to the search for the real lateral good."(p. 13)

This definition of equality will be the focus of our next few blog postings.


  1. What does the Bible teach?

    "And all men are from the ground, and Adam was created of earth. In much knowledge the Lord hath divided them and made their ways diverse. Some of them hath he blessed and exalted, and some them hath he sanctified, and set near himself: but some of them hath he cursed and brought low and turned out of their places. As the clay is in the potter's hand, to fashion it at his pleasure: so man is in the hand of him that made him, to render to them as liketh him best." LXX Book of Sirach, 36.10-13.

    How does "rationality" fit in here? Is it really up to human individuals? Some of them hath he cursed and brought low. Who can countermand that? Can an individual rise through his rationality out of his state that the Creator put him in?

    I think the premise of the book is already out of whack. We are not just "individuals" which seems to be the premise of the book. We are members of a group, starting with the family. No individual is free from relation at any time in his life. We are surrounded by Relation. That is very ontological and automatically surrounded by Kosmos. This should be interesting.

  2. Okay, this book, By Nature Equal: The Anatomy of a Western Insight is at Questia, the online library. I have began to read parts of it.

    The authors of this book have this to say:
    "Inspired by the due process clauses, we jurists also tend to connect human equality with human autonomy. We must free individuals from the traditional structures and strictures of patriarchy and hierarchy that encroach on their autonomy. For the more each person can claim the same zone of privacy, the more all persons will become equal. (pg xviii)

    This "We must free individuals from Traditional structures and strictures of patriarchy and hierarchy" is nihilism, pure and simple. We are not in this world to "Free" individuals. This is the American and French Revolutions, but is not Western Culture or Civilization. Western Culture and Civilization is built on hierarchy and patriarchy.

    "They do regard the Declarations of 1776 and 1948, among others, as sublime statements of Western ideas and ideals..." ibid
    I totally disagree. They are not sublime statements of Western ideas but of JudeoMasonic Bolshevism. Western Culture and Civilization has its beginnings in the Doric Tribes of Crete and Sparta. Greek philosophy's home is there. Greek philosophy is Western thought. To being an individual is akin to being "clanless" which Aristotle condemns as evil.

  3. Coons and Brennan are firmly rooted in the best of the Catholic tradition. (xxii)

    How can they be "rooted in the best of the Catholic tradition" when they want to "free individuals from Traditional structures and strictures of patriarchy and hierarchy"?


  4. I think you have misconstrued them. First, you cite from the Introduction by Witte, and not the words of Coons and Brennan. But the reference you cite refers to contemporary jurists, not Coons and Brennan. Indeed, Witte says "The limitations of these legal constructions are now becoming too plain to ignore . . . . new inequalities are opening . . . ." I don't think Witte is suggesting that Coons and Brennan are anti-patriarchy and anti-hierarchy.

    I think it would be wrong to wholesale dump 1776 and 1948. These documents are legally and culturally important. Whatever philosophical presuppositions of which we may harbor reservations, as Catholics we must accept the good that is in these documents, and there is much, much good. In fact, there is more than a smidgen of Greek philosophy behind 1776 and 1948.

    Let's be like the Hebrews and plunder the Egyptians of their Gold.

  5. I think Coons and Brennan should take advice from this Greek proverb:

    "Satan takes learned heads for a ride"