Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Origins of Equality in Western Worldviews

“The value of Equality [sic] is, perhaps, a unique contribution of the Jewish religion to the culture of the West. [….] The idea of equality appears in the Jewish Bible [what Christians term the ‘Old Testament’] as the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God. [….] Later, of course, the idea of equality was detached from its specifically religious roots: one effect of this separation, an effect we see right to the present day, is that the idea of equality becomes somewhat mysterious, and for that reason, exposed to scoffing.” — Hilary Putnam in his book, The Many Faces of Realism (Open Court, 1987): 44.

Putnam was wise enough to qualify the proposition in the first sentence with the adverb “perhaps.” Before going further, permit me to share Putnam’s further and somewhat tentative [cf. ‘perhaps,’ ‘vague,’ ‘may,’ ‘seems’] specification of this principle as inherited from the Judaic tradition. He writes, “Perhaps the following two principles, vague as they are, may capture the minimal content of the idea of equality which Western culture took from the Bible seems to have:

(i) There is something about human beings, some aspect of which is of incomparable more significance, with respect to which all human beings are equal, no matter how unequal they may be in talents, achievements, social contributions, etc. [brute luck?].
(ii) Even those who are least talented or whose achievements are the least, or whose contribution is the least, are deserving of respect.”

Putnam adds a third “principle,” which is one implication or conclusion that was much later more or less derived from (i) and (ii): “(iii) Everyone’s happiness or suffering is of equal prima facie moral importance.”

Putnam’s confidence in the claim made in the first paragraph above appears rather stronger when he writes that “Greek ethics, as we know it in Plato and Aristotle, and even in the Hellenistic period, has no notion of universal human equality.” 

Comment: Putnam is certainly correct to identify the Judaic contribution to our concept of equality, which can be traced to the fact that human beings were created “in [the] image (and likeness) of God,” and the fact that we are seen as being descendants of Adam and Eve (it’s odd that Eve is often left out of this genealogy). Moreover, we find in the Hebrew Bible the notion of a “universal” covenant that was made with Noah and all of creation (and the Noahide laws that are binding on all of humanity), which is distinguished from the Abrahamic covenant that consecrated the Jews in particular as a holy or “chosen” people. (Daniel Burston terms this a ‘residual tribalism’ that was transcended by the ‘prophetic critique’ of mass illusion or delusion, what we today call ‘false consciousness,’ especially insofar as ‘Israel’s claim to territorial sovereignty became no more than a faint historical recollection.’ Alas, that recollection has been resurrected in our time with a vengeance in the regnant Zionist ideology of Israeli politics.)

But ancient Greek and Hellenistic ethics did, in fact, make a profound and enduring philosophical or intellectual and political contribution to the idea of equality that became one of the tripartite principles of the French Revolution (liberté, égalité, fraternité). As the late Stanley Benn’s entry on “equality, moral and social” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) informs us, “The first generalized egalitarianism was that of Stoics, who stressed the natural equality of all men [used here in an anthropological sense] as rational beings with an equal capacity for virtue.” Ernst Bloch, in Natural Law and Human Dignity (MIT Press, 1986; in German, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1961), likewise reminds us of this contribution, which drew in part from certain Sophist and Cynic thinkers, as they connected their conception of equality to an emergent idea of natural law: physis, in Stoicism, “became the sole criterion of valid nomos”—lex naturae is lex—includes “that which is holy, and even divine,” thus this incipient doctrine of natural law is at once “extremely anthropocentric, yet divinely sublime.” Stoic thought here echoes, according to Bloch, the mythical idea of a golden age in which mankind was ruled by an “unwritten law,” now understood as “natural law,” including the idea of the “innate equality of all people (the abolition of a difference in worth between slaves and masters, barbarians and Greeks)” and the idea of “the unity of members [‘world citizens’ or cosmopolites] of an international community [a cosmopolis] that is the rational empire of love.” Bloch concludes:

“Stoicism is enormously democratic here: its natural law is uniquely philanthropic, its state is a brotherhood. The task of politics is intimately bound to the task of universal humanity, which must be based upon the rational essence of human nature and the rule that results from it. This rule is intrinsically just as much the overcoming of slavish passions as it is extrinsically the overcoming of interests that are egotistical, localized, or national ….”

We bring this brief discussion to a close with a quote from Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994), for it shows equal appreciation of the strengths and shortcomings of the Stoic idea of equality, at least insofar as the idea was an ideal to be incarnate in social and political praxis:

“Stoic politics is built, to a great extent, on ideas not of human incompleteness [cf. Christian doctrines and theologies, from the ‘Fall of Man’ and ‘original sin,’ to Anselm’s influential formulation of ‘substitutionary atonement’] but of human dignity and self-government. This emphasis, especially when combined with Stoic universalism about the potential for virtue, puts the Stoics in a position to make a strong contribution to account of human rights and human freedom. Their insistence on the equal humanity of slaves and women is especially striking—even if not combined with any very robust interest in altering the political realities of slaves’ and women’s lives.”


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