My First Things blog post asserting that the widespread belief in universal human equality could be a potentially saving grace in the cultural controversies of our time has generated a lot of comment, for which I thank my correspondents. Based on what people are telling me, I think there has been something of a misapprehension about my point. I am certainly not saying that because the lingua franca of the West is equality, it is thus game, set, and match. But I do believe that this crucial principle of human liberty¯even if held only abstractly¯sets in motion the awesome power of human logic. And this works to the advantage of those among us who advocate on behalf of the weak and vulnerable.
For example, the belief in equality has forced those who wish to instrumentalize some humans into making absurd and scientifically unsupportable assertions. Thus, in the embryonic stem cell debate, scientists make the ridiculous assertion that human embryos are not really human. Well, they aren’t Martians! Some even assert that embryos are not human because they don’t have arms and legs and noses. This is nonsense, of course. And it is easy to rebut merely by resorting to any embryology textbook.
So the situation becomes highly ironic. Those charged by the mainstream media as being purely ideological argue from valid science, and the supposedly objective scientists are forced into making purely emotional and sophistic appeals. The media doesn’t report it this way, of course, but because of the widespread belief in equality, those who seek to deny its application are forced onto very thin intellectual ice. Indeed, the issue of the moral value of the embryo remains a cogent issue, at least in part because people do understand that embryos are human organisms, and that this scientific fact matters morally.
The value of equality also permits the creation of very powerful coalitions of strange political bedfellows. Consider the assisted-suicide battle: After Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1994, most observers¯myself included¯believed that legalization there would result in a sweep of euthanasia permissiveness across the country. But it didn’t happen. Why? In large part because disability-rights activists came literally riding to the rescue claiming that legalization of assisted suicide would constitute the most egregious form of discrimination against disabled people. Disability-rights activists are almost all very secular in their outlook, supportive of the right to abortion, and liberal politically. Yet they became part of a robust coalition that includes pro-lifers, medical professionals, civil rights activists, and others who have united to oppose the agenda, not because of religion, but based explicitly on the issue of equality. (LULAC, the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization, opposes assisted suicide for similar reasons.) The most recent triumph of this coalition was the defeat of the bill to legalize assisted suicide in California. A similar phenomenon defeated an assisted-suicide bill in the UK a few months ago, and the UK has a very weak sanctity-of-life sector. This is a concrete example of why, contrary to Robert T. Miller’s fears, the widespread belief in equality offers great reason for hope.
Equality is continually being undermined by the growing utilitarianism and amorality of society. In such a milieu it is easy to become discouraged. But the fact that human equality has become nearly universally accepted means we have the high ground. That doesn’t guarantee victory. But it does mean we can make powerful and compelling secular arguments about these issues that have the potential to resonate deeply in the public square.
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