19 November 2016

Equality as a Conservative Principle

A couple of weeks back a contrast was drawn between two key ethical concepts embraced by conservatism and liberalism.

Conservatism prioritizes the good over the right. People should seek those things that are really good for them, i.e. that meet their natural human needs. Because all human beings possess the same human nature, the needs are the same for every human being. It is these basic needs that serve as the basis for natural rights.

Liberalism prioritizes the right over the good. Although liberalism, too, acknowledges the good, it holds that people have the right to choose whatever version of "the good life" they want. Moreover, society and especially the government should be non-judgmental and neutral on this question. Liberalism rests these conclusions on rights and equality.

Last week's post contrasted the conservative and liberal perspective on rights.

Now a turn to the concept of equality.

Liberalism holds that all human beings are equal. It follows that all human beings are worthy of equal respect. And for many, if not most, liberals  this includes respect every other person's choices on what constitutes "the good life." Society needs to be non-judgmental and tolerant of the diverse lifestyles that people choose. And the government should be neutral regarding "the good life" as well. It should not discriminate between different lifestyle choices.

In addition, many modern liberals seem to believe that these lifestyle choices do not impact the extent to which people thrive. Liberals do not say so explicitly; it flies in the face of common sense to make such an argument. Too often, however, modern liberals attempt to explain the different degrees to which people thrive on reason other than the relative merits of persons. They blame the capitalist economic structure, the wealthy, overt racism, institutional racism, or most 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, artificial enhancements such as seniority, affirmative action, quotas, minimum wage hikes are erected by liberals against virtue or merit--all designed to burden those who  thrive for the benefit of those who languish.

So what about the conservative perspective of equality?

As in other posts, I use Aristotle as the best starting point.

In contrast to my assertions in previous posts, Aristotle on this question made a bit of a false start.

As Greeks looked about at other peoples around the Mediterranean, they developed a 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 to be slaves. 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.

And this is really the only meaningful sense that human beings are equal.

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. Although humans have the same needs, they have diverse wants. 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 honor received for  their educational, economic, and athletic achievements 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. A just society will manifest all kinds of inequalities.

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