Thomas Jefferson prominently enshrined the phrase “all men are created equal” in our Declaration of Independence. This phrase has ever since embodied perhaps the single most important and enduring foundation of the American experiment (see here).
Certainly all people of good-will respect and value this “immortal declaration.” And certainly no one limits their interpretation to the literal meaning of the phrase. For if children quickly and demonstrably became unequal, the idea of equality at creation would lose any practical or useful meaning whatsoever. So we generally accept that “created equal” also implies that we remain equal throughout our lives, independent of what we do or do not accomplish in life.
But this must be much more than a mere rhetorical or theoretical equality. It must extend far beyond a mere begrudging recognition that all people have the right to basic human rights and dignity. It must be a practical working belief that operates at the real functional interpersonal level which allows us to work together in this human project as equal partners.
Indeed, without a sincere and unqualified recognition of the equality of all individuals, our social fabric cannot endure. It is not possible to have a fair and just society if we feel, even deep down, that some are deserving and others are not; that some are superior merely by virtue of their social status or race or gender or even by their level of accomplishment in life. To allow for such fundamental bases of inequality is to travel down the road toward slavery and subjugation and exploitation and ultimately into the abyss of social disfunction.
Yet, moving beyond a mere allowance of certain inalienable rights to a true respect for each individuals capabilities and worth is not easy. In fact that is a huge understatement. For in our everyday life in every social interaction we see that people are simply not equal. It is laughably obvious that in fact we are not equal by wide margins. Some folks are brilliant, others stupid. Some sane, others insane. Some gifted, others inept. Some strong, others puny. Some have lived honorable lives, others lives of ignobility.
The truth is, we cannot help but observe glaringly wide disparities on any measure of worth you care to assess.
So how can we truly hold the ideal of equality alongside the reality of inequality harmoniously in our minds? How can we sincerely believe in equality without lying to ourselves about the reality? And how can we acknowledge the reality without lying to ourselves about our belief in the ideal?
This requires some rationalization. Rationalization is not a bad thing. We all have to find some coherent model for reconciling contradictory ideas. Therefore, we all must find some kind of understanding that allows a recognition of equality to thrive, fully and harmoniously in our individual brains and in our collective psyche, alongside the reality of inequality.
You may already have your own rationalization that works well for you. But here’s how I rationalize it. It’s not perfect, but no model can be. It has long worked pretty well for me.
- Excluding physical or chemical debilitation, a human’s total capacity to think is neurologically dependent upon their physical brain capacity.
- All human brains are the same size, or close enough as the differences do not matter. Therefore our total brain “power” is essentially the same and all of it is used in some manner.
- Brains exhibit a wide spectrum of capabilities. Think of it as an impracticably wide bar chart. Each bar is a narrow trait, like perhaps “math,” or “kindness,” or “neuromuscular control,” but much finer grained than those.
- Everyone’s bar chart is a unique. It is a signature of who they are. Everyone has some high bars and some low bars. But the total area under the bars adds up to the same total power.
- Some bars are particularly valued by society at any given time, some are measured on an SAT exam and some are not. Some make you a business tycoon, some a starving artist. But although some signatures may be seen as more important to society, or lead to greater success, all are equal and all are valuable to society.
So, in my rationalization all people are truly equal. True, some may be less appreciated or less helpful in a given situation, but all are nevertheless worthy of true respect in my mind for their unique strengths. There is no contradiction whatsoever with the observed differences between individuals. Aspiration and reality are fully reconciled.
This model has helped me to reconcile equality with differences. It has in fact helped me appreciate equality by virtue of our differences. It has helped me to feel proud of my own personal strengths while simultaneously humble about my weaknesses and while still being as worthy and as flawed as anyone overall. It has helped me recognize that being smart or skilled in one area does not make anyone particularly smart or skilled in another. That has helped me apply a healthy level of skepticism to opinions put forth by “smart” people in areas outside their proven expertise and to allow that otherwise uninformed people can offer valuable insights in others. It has helped me understand that traits like “smart” or “sane” are not simple binaries but complex and nuanced and somewhat arbitrary. We are all smart in some things and delusional others (see here). It has also helped me to value undervalued traits and to recognize that disrespecting people for one very low bar of their chart does not mean you disrespect them in totality and that respect overall does not require you to respect every trait.
And further, we should value the undervalued signatures in our society more than we do. It is our failure and our loss if we do not identify and utilize whatever unique strengths each individual has. There are no useless skillsets, only underutilized and underappreciated skillsets.
I think these rationalizations have led me in a healthy direction. Maybe this model will help you come to a more healthy and helpful view of equality as well.