Category Archives: Human Equality

One Virtuous Man

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In the late 1960’s a fellow officer of mine, an African-American, call him Captain Em, was quite upset that Dr. King had come out against the Vietnam War. King, Captain Em stated to me, was fully justified in seeking better civil rights but he had no business commenting upon the foreign policy of the United States, particularly the righteous campaign in Vietnam (which was to result in the deaths of 58,000 US troops, average age of 19, and millions of Vietnamese). I disagreed with Captain Em, but at the time I wasn’t sure why. Now I know better.
What are the responsibilities of citizenship, after all?
Henry David Thoreau, at a time when the US was invading Mexico, wrote about the functions of good citizenship in his essay on Civil Disobedience.

    What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes the petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.

Dr. King, like Tolstoy and Gandhi, was familiar with Thoreau’s work, and also was particularly influenced by “Civil Disobedience.” So when King decided in 1967 to oppose the Vietnam War he was prepared for the enmity that naturally came from his regular supporters such as Captain Em. Thoreau had warned him:

    And very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

Dr. King delivered his little-known speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

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Just what did “The Declaration” Declare?

Here in the United States, it’s July 4th, a day we commemorate with fireworks, cook-outs, concerts, and speeches. So what exactly is it that we celebrate?
Nominally, today marks the 231st anniversary of revolutionary America formally declaring its separation from Great Britain. The primary author of the famous document was, of course, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s Monticello home, here in Charlottesville, has become a living educational memorial to Jefferson. I recently was honored to be a “Jefferson Fellow” at the adjoining Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, (ICJS) where scholars, in part, explore the ongoing legacy of Jefferson for our world today.
Despite the ready association of Jefferson with today’s date, do we understand what the core purpose of Jefferson’s Declaration was?
Easy, right? If so, and at the risk of turning this into NPR’s “wait, wait,… don’t tell me” quiz show, then let’s try this question: how did America’s famous Declaration begin? Was it:

a. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…”
b. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
c. ” When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station….”
d. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”
e. “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”

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If you the reader are like the vast majority of Americans, you will be inclined to answer “b,” but sorry, that is the Declaration’s second paragraph, not the first.

Answer “e” is also incorrect; that’s the opening to the 1945 Vietnamese Declaration (among dozens of Declarations in world history that emulated America’s in one form or another.)
Answer “d” also is incorrect, as this is Article 1 from the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
With answer “a” of course being the preamble to the 1789 US Constitution, then you surely knew the answer to be “c.”

Lest we get too confident in our history IQ, how many of us can readily recall just what the 1776 American Declaration… well… “declared?”
Even if you had a solid American history education, don’t feel too bad if you’re a bit confused by the question. Assuming you went to an American school that still taught “civics” in some form, your lessons on “The Declaration” likely included much contemplation of the meaning, the “codes,” of Jefferson’s second paragraph. Just what fundamental “truths” did the new American nation “hold” to be “self-evident?” And what about all that seeming hypocrisy regarding all persons (“men”) being created equal, even as so many of them were then in tolerated bondage?
Until quite recently, very little in the vast scholarship on Jefferson and the Declaration addresses the “simple” question of just what was the Declaration’s purpose? The curious state of such learned discourse is neatly illustrated in a short 1999 text, edited by Joseph Ellis and entitled, “What Did the Declaration Declare?” This book provides splendid examples of the great scholarly debates over the last half of the 20th Century about how the Declaration was written, about the merits or exaggerations in the list of grievances against George III, and just which intellectual current influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration’s second paragraph. Was it John Locke? Or was it the Scottish Enlightenment? Or was it some Saxon mythology that only Jefferson could fathom?
Whatever Jefferson’s intellectual parentage, Abraham Lincoln’s 1859 tribute to Jefferson’s “second paragraph” still nicely sidesteps such inquiry:

“All honor to Jefferson… who had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Yet from Lincoln to the present, few scholars or pundits have provided much substantive comment about the Declaration’s first sentence, which in full reads:

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Parenthetically, my own work focuses on just what Jefferson and his colleagues meant by a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” (I have much to publish on this rarely-considered clause, and yes, it has a rather compelling contemporary ring…. Imagine — American leaders once caring about world opinion.)
I am pleased though to acknowledge that the two-century-old intellectual logjam blocking inquiry into the Declaration’s first sentence has been nicely broken by Harvard’s David Armitage, an historian and “English School” international relations scholar.
In a brilliant 2002 William & Mary Quarterly article and in a slender new book, entitled “The Declaration of Independence: A Global History,” Armitage contends directly that the fundamental purpose of the American Declaration was to…
(drum roll…. turn the page…. whoosh, poof, boom, zing, crackle,sizzle…, bang!….)

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On human equality

I’ve been thinking a little more about what it would really mean if we were all serious about saying (as the Founding Fathers of the US said) that all “men”– for which, read “all humans”– are created equal, and are endowed equally with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I was just reading the 2005 edition of the UN development Program’s Human Development Report. Table 14 at the back there tells us that the annual Gross Domestic Product of the whole world is US$36.06 trillion– or,if you count something called “Purchasing Power Parity dollars”it comes to PPP$51.15 trillion. (These are figures for 2003.)
Given a world population of just over 6.3 billion souls, the global GDP per capita comes to US$5,801, or PPP$8,229. That is the value of all the goods and services produced in the world in a year (now, not changed much from 2003.)
So if your household’s income is less than PPP$8,229 per capita, then you’re getting the short end of the economic stick, globally speaking. If it is more, then you’re a person of privilege.
Okay, I’m a person of privilege.
In 2003, the GDP per capita in the US came to PPP$37,562. Of course, we know it is very unevenly distributed within the US. (Indeed, Table 15 tells us that the richest 10% of Americans enjoy 29.9% of the nation’s income or consumption; and the proportion between the income enjoyed by the richest 10% to that enjoyed by the poorest 10% is 15.9 to 1, by far the highest for any of the OECD countries.)
By contrast, the average GDP per capita in the 32 countries listed in the Report as being of “Low human development”– and I hope to heck there’s no-one out there reading this who takes this to be a moral judgment??– is just PPP$1,046. That is, just 2.78% of the per-capita PPP GDP within the US.
So, let’s go back 13 years, to 1990. That year, according to the 1993 Human Development Report, the real GDP per capita in the US was PPP$21,449 (Table 1). In the countries described as “least developed” it was PPP$740, or 3.45% of what it was in the US.
Clearly, gaps are getting wider.
Clearly, too, these gaps in income, which accumulate year after year after year into ever larger gaps in wealth, leave the US and other rich countries– some of which, I should note, have a slightly higher per-capita GDP than the US, though these are much smaller countries– but the ever accumulating gaps in wealth between the uber-rich and the uber-poor leave the rich countries much, much more capable of intervening economically in the affairs of the poorest countries… And they (we) do this in many ways, including by keep the international trade rules firmly stacked against poor-country producers of most primary goods.
In terms of the “ability to intervene economically”, too, I think the “raw” US$ figures of per-capita GDP in any country are a stronger indicator of their relative susceptibility to US intervention than the PPPS figures. For example, if a gringo goes into any of the many low-income countries where the cost of living is relatively low (in dollar terms), then he or she can exert a lot more influence by waving $100 around there than s/he could get by doing the same in a (much more expensive) West European country.
… Well, deeply embedded and continuing economic inequalities are only dimension of the present inequalities among the world’s peoples. But I’ve been thinking about human equality/inequlity quite a lot over recent months (okay, most of my life, to be truthful.) Some years ago, when I was toying with the idea of doing a Ph.D. in philosophical ethics, I took a course that involved a lot of close reading in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Rawls, who died a couple of years ago, was a leading icon of US political philosophy. He was a longtime Harvard prof, and Theory of Justice was his best-known work by far.
Back when I was reading it 8 years or so ago, I found it intriguing, but I disagreed fairly strongly with some of his general dispositions; mostly, I should say, with his ontology. His view of “the human condition” was very much in the tradition of the English empiricists, those dear old (always unmarried) Anglican clergymen like Locke, Hobbes etc who viewed “men”– for such was the subject of their enquiry– as quintessentially individualistic, self-generating, and self-sufficient beings. (I guess they never stopped to speculate about the ontological standing of the women who must have washed their socks for them, and fed them– let alone the mothers whose tireless labor had raised them from infancy and endowed them with all the basic tools of the language by which they later made their living… Oh well.)
Myself, I always was much more of a feminist communitarian. I love Seyla Ben-Habib’s takedowns of Hobbes and Locke; Margaret Walker, Sara Ruddick, and all those other feminist philosophers whose works are notably NOT taught in philsophy departments dominated by a rigidly “analytical” approach.
So anyway, I had a bunch of criticisms of Rawls that I argued out in various forms at the time. But now, looking back, I think maybe it’s time to reconnect with a couple of his key insights, and try to bring them more to life within the US discourse.
He centers his argument about the nature of “justice” around a clever educational device that he calls the “veil of ignorance.” Basically, he says that if you try to imagine what a just social order might look like, you should imagine that all the people in the world encounter each other in an initial deliberation in which they don’t know the details of their own social situation. So since you don’t know, in this thought experiment, whether you might be male or female, rich or poor, black-skinned or white-skinned, able-bodied or disabled, you would want to minimize your chances of getting “the short end of the stick” by legislating some kind of social order in which, regardless of your condition, your interests would not be totally ignored… and on this basis, a generally “fair” and perhaps even somewhat “caring” social order would emerge.
Nearly all of this argument was set within a national community. I don’t recall whether he stated this, or whether it was strongly implied, instead. Toward the very end of his life, Rawls wrote a book called, I think, “The Law of Nations” in which he attempted to use a similar device to construct some form of a “world order”. But I don’t think anyone took that latter work, which was really poorly argued and disorganized, very seriously.
Maybe we could do a Rawlsian thought experiment at the global level, though? Not– as Rawls had done in the Law of Nations, by considering the basic “negotiating unit” to be each nation, but taking it as being each person in the world…. If you had a real chance that, after the removal of the “veil of ignarance” you might indeed find yourself to be a Guatemalan subsistence farmer or a disabled Congolese child… then how would you order the world and its priorities?
I wonder how people in rich, secure western countries would respond when invited seriously to take part in such a thought experiment. I know Oxfam and similar organizations do things like dinners where people are randomly assigned a heaping plate, or a half-empty plate, or a plate with just a few grains of old rice on it, and then they use that to start talking about global economic inequalities…
But I think it’s probably still true that most westerners (a) don’t really like to think much about things like that, (b) don’t even know that much about the lives of people in low-income countries that they could start to really even imagine what it would be like to be one of them, and (c) might have at the back of their minds some version of the Calvinist view that people who have a lot of worldly goods somehow “deserve” to have them, while people who do not, somehow “deserve” not to.
.. Well, I realize I’m not coming to any answers here. But still, I think it’s really important as we approach the next phase of global affairs, to start thinking about what a world order truly based on the principle of human equality would or should look like. There are so many dimensions of this issue! Stay tuned…