I am not sure why Robert T. Miller is so determined to focus on the empty half of the partially filled glass, rather than acknowledge the portion that contains fluid. I have acknowledged that society’s general belief in equality is not game, set, and match, but rather that the philosophy of the United States (“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”) provides a strong principle upon which to base and defend public policies that are protective of the weak and vulnerable. Nothing that Miller has written seems to rebut that premise.
Miller claims that our general belief in equality doesn’t mean all that much because the “philosophically sophisticated” are always able to find reasons to create invidious distinctions among humans by asserting that there are morally relevant reasons to treat some of us as less than equal. To prove his point, he discusses the differing attitudes about equality among the philosophical schools established by Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and utilitarian thinkers.
Most people don’t give a hoot about deep philosophical discourse. They believe in common sense, pragmatism, and attempting to do what is right.
If the opinions of the philosophically sophisticated were the be-all and end-all of this debate, I would be as pessimistic as Miller is, since I don’t believe that most intellectual elites care much about human intrinsic moral equality. Indeed, the minions of the ivory tower will always find some highly nuanced way to distinguish among human lives so as to be able to throw some of us out of the lifeboat. This is precisely what happened in the original eugenics movement¯which was a top-down phenomenon¯and it is occurring again with the new eugenics emanating from our most elite universities.
But thankfully, we are a free country and the elites don’t have the final say. Indeed, the great hope is that the common sense and intrinsic decency of the folk will eventually carry the day.
There are very positive signs to be observed in this regard, if we but look. Take embryonic stem-cell research: Polls show that most people support ESCR¯ but only if they are told that the embryos are going to be thrown out anyway. This argument appeals to the pragmatism of the culture by promoting the idea that these nascent humans are doomed in any event and so we may as well get some valuable use out of them. But the numbers in support of ESCR decline sharply if the polling questions mention that embryos are destroyed in ESCR. And support collapses into outright disapproval if embryos are going to be created explicitly for use and destruction in research. The primary reason for this is that, at some level, even if relatively shallow, most people believe that being human matters, which is another way of accepting the principle of human equality. This is a half-filled glass, to be sure, but at least it is half filled.
Miller’s rejection of the belief in equality as having had a profound impact in the assisted-suicide debate does not make sense to me. Disability-rights activists oppose assisted-suicide legalization precisely because they perceive that legalizing euthanasia denies their equality by creating a public policy that explicitly and implicitly establishes their lives as being less worthy of being protected by the state and by doctors. This accurate analysis led to the creation of a strange-political-bedfellow coalition that has effectively prevented killing from becoming an acceptable answer to human suffering throughout the United States. Surely, this coalition is to be celebrated and acknowledged as being in keeping with our belief in equal moral worth rather than being dismissed because it does not extend to other issues.
The moral question of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, is whether human life possesses intrinsic moral value simply and merely because it is human. If our culture answers affirmatively, and I firmly believe most people think that it should, the force of logic generated by that decision will promote human equality and the creation of increasingly moral and humane public policies. Our application of this fundamental understanding is unlikely ever to be perfect, meaning that our reach will always exceed our grasp. But at least the general acceptance of the principle of human equality will keep us on the right path. If we say no, however¯as indeed most elites unquestionably do¯a different logic is set into motion that will eventually distort our self-perception to the point where we will see ourselves as merely another animal in the forest. If that unwanted result comes to pass, that is precisely how we will act.
I am not sure what general moral value or principle Miller thinks will work better than equality in promoting moral public policies, given our morally diverse, culturally polyglot society. I would be interested in his answer.
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