On Two Kinds of Equality

by Daniel Foster

Charlie, I hesitate to get too lofty and abstract on a day dominated by news of political marriages that were ‘open’ de facto if not de jure, but the perversion of the Left’s “fairness” conceit in the realm of intelligence and education — in this case, tracking for athletic ability is okay, but tracking for smarts is monstrous — did not begin with socialists in 1960s Britain. In fact, I think it’s just about liberalism’s oldest problem — so old that it encompasses both  contemporary left-liberalism and its more libertarian, “classical liberal” forerunner — so old it’s practically written into the DNA of the Enlightenment.

Though we sometimes put contemporary philosophical disagreements between Left and Right in terms of a preference for equality over liberty, the whole normative architecture of liberal democracy — as brought to us by the Anglophone Enlightenment — of course relies on the axiom that the two are inexorably linked, that you can’t have one without the other. Specifically, the idea is that we enjoy our rights not by virtue of the conditions of our birth or station, but by virtue of our reason. And that since, in the relevant sense and with some caveats, all men are equal in reason, all men are equally entitled to the enjoyment of those rights. The trouble with the previous sentence is with the phrase “in the relevant sense and with some caveats.” In chapter XIII of the Leviathan (unarguably one of the foundational texts of the Anglophone political order), Hobbes goes out of his way to define just what that sense and those caveats are. He could be talking directly to your Allison Pearson:

NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

And as to the faculties of the mind, setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science, which very few have and but in few things, as being not a native faculty born with us, nor attained, as prudence, while we look after somewhat else, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything than that every man is contented with his share.

Much is highlighted because much is there. But the key is that there is broad enough equality among men in terms of reason — or, let’s be honest, cunning — that the physically weakest can still best the strongest, “either by secret machination or by confederacy with others”, and that the greatest evidence for this equal distribution of “the faculties of the mind” is that “every man is contented with his share.” That is, for the purposes of the political (or of war, which is another word for politics), if man has reason at all, he has as much reason as the next guy, and therefore as much franchise. 

But you can see how this can quickly degenerate from “all men are equal in reason” to “all men (and women!) are equally intelligent”, and indeed it didn’t take long for a cadre of Enlightenment liberals to forget Hobbes’ caveats. This wasn’t hard to do, since Hobbes confusingly sets aside literacy, “eloquence”, “witty[ness], “learned[ness],” and even the “skill of . . . science” from “the faculties of mind” he counts as constitutive of reason. Hobbes was trying to carve out the narrow rationality that gives us all the ability to have beliefs, hopes, desires, and fears, and to think causally and act efficaciously on them. You know, the kind of reason that requires rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to enjoy. But by the early days of the American republic, people were already mistaking the narrower equality of reason for the broader equality of talents. John Adams saw this when, 150 years after Leviathan, he wrote about the misunderstanding by some of the claim that “All men are born free and equal” made in Article I of the Massachusetts state constitution, which he helped write. Adams understood that this was “not a physical but a moral equality.”

Common sense was sufficient to determine that it could not mean that all men were equal in fact, but in right, not equally tall, strong, wise, handsome, active, but equally men… the work of the same Artist, children in the same cases entitled to the same justice.

Fitting that it was the Massachusetts constitution being misread in favor of absolute equality, and ironic that “entitled to the same justice” is another phrase that half of the Enlightenment’s children would later misread, as well. But that’s another post.

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