ne of the pillars of this philosophy is that all people are equal.

This commonly touted notion sounds nice, but does it bear scrutiny? In what way are people equal? We are certainly not equally wealthy. We’re not equally nice to strangers. We’re not equal in size, shape, strength, or speed. We’re not equally intelligent. We’re not equal in our skills or talents. In morality, athletic ability, creativity, manners, pulchritude, longevity, and in every facet of humanity that can be measured and compared, we are better, worse, and just plain different from each other, but we’re not equal. What could it possibly mean to say that we are equal?

In Animal Liberation, the philosopher Peter Singer states that “the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact.” Very well, then in what way are we equal? Singer explains:

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.

When we speak of human equality what we commonly mean is that humans are of equal worth and therefore deserve equal rights (or, better yet, equal consideration of their interests). In Feeling Good, the psychologist David Burns describes this notion of “equal worth”:

Acknowledge that everyone has one ‘unit of worth’ from the time they are born until the time they die. As an infant you may achieve very little, and yet you are still precious and worthwhile. And when you are old or ill, relaxed or asleep, or just doing ‘nothing,’ you still have ‘worth.’ Your ‘unit of worth’ can’t be measured and can never change, and it is the same for everyone.

However, while Burns offers this description of equal worth as a kindness to those who insist worth must exist, he first suggests a more radical course: drop the concept of worth altogether! Self-worth is frequently recommended and celebrated in pop culture, so why does this imminent psychologist rail against it? Pop culture has it wrong and Burns has it right. While self-esteem can perhaps be built on the notion of equal worth, the self-worth movement is actually focused on comparative worth, which is an enemy to self-esteem.

Essentially, you must acknowledge that human ‘worth’ is just an abstraction; it doesn’t exist. Hence, there is actually no such thing as human worth. Therefore, you cannot have it or fail to have it, and it cannot be measured. Worth is not a ‘thing,’ it is just a global concept. It is so generalized it has no concrete practical meaning. Nor is it a useful and enhancing concept. It is simply self-defeating. It doesn’t do you any good. It only causes suffering and misery. So rid yourself immediately of any claim to being ‘worthy,’ and you’ll never have to measure up again or fear being ‘worthless.’

A human being is a complex and ever changing mish-mash of traits, skills, knowledge, memories, thoughts, and behaviors. One person might run faster than another, or have a nicer smile, or score higher on an IQ test, or have more friends. Taken in totality, though, it simply is not possible to meaningfully compare one person to another.

Our equality, then, is not the product of our sameness; in fact it’s more a product of our heterogeneity. Our individuality makes comparisons meaningless. It is impossible to say that one human being is globally better or worse than another. We are equal in that we’re equally too complex to rate.

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 Posted by on February 18, 2012
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