10 September 2012

Rights and Equality

The Founding Fathers were half-right:
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.
The founding fathers were correct in noting that all men were endowed by their creator with certain, inalienable rights.  However, they were wrong in asserting that all men were created equal.  If anything, it is self-evident that men are not equal (and if we’re going to appeal to the Creator, I note that inequality is very much a key component of Christian hierarchy).

The Founding Fathers were operating on the assumption that equality and rights were intertwined, for how else could you successfully argue that one man’s rights do not trump another man’s rights, and that competing rights be kept in balance?  This is a tricky question, to be sure, and the answer hinges on the usage of equality.  I’ve addressed this before, so I will not address I further in this post.

Instead, I would like to consider the following question:  even if equality doesn’t exist save in the broadest, most abstract terms (e.g. all humans are equal in their humanity), does that preclude rights from existing as well?  Rights used, of course, in the negative sense.  My gut inclination is to say no.  Even if equality doesn’t exist, there is no reason to argue that humans do not rights endowed by their Creator.  Even if humans differ in role and ability, it does not follow that those who are superior ought to be allowed to abuse those who are inferior.  Or, to put it another way, being wealthier/cleverer/etc. doesn’t mean that you can or should forcibly take the property rightfully belonging to another.  Even the Creator is appalled when a king defrauds a landowner.

Thus, equality is not a condition of rights; humanity is.  Therefore, the only appeal to equality that is necessary for the universal recognition of rights is the equality found in a shared humanity.  Beyond that, equality is not necessary for rights.  In fact, equality is often quite detrimental to rights, but that is a post for another day.


  1. I'm sure the founding fathers didn't mean for "all men are created equal" to be read as "literally equal". I think it was referring to the class system in Europe at the time, where two men who were absolutely equal in merit could be distinguished because one was born to an aristocratic family and the other to a common family. In the Founding Fathers' America, the courts can't rule on the side of an aristocrat over a commoner defendant purely on the basis of births... (at least that's how I imagine they intended that part)

  2. @Anon. I don't disagree. I'm just asserting that equality need not be a precondition of rights. If you are human, you have rights. It doesn't matter if you're an aristocrat or a peasant; if you're human you have certain fundamental rights.

    I only mention this because of the apotheosis of Equality. It seems today that Equality has become so deified that some seem to think that if you don't have Equality, you can't even have basic human rights. Of course, if this is not the case, then radical egalitarians can be safely ignored.