"All Men Are Created Equal." Really?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Really?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."


So begin Jefferson's famous words from the body of The Declaration of Independence of 1776. Beautiful though the thought and the wording may be, it simply does not stand up to even momentary analysis.

Already, a commenter has accused me of anti-American sentiment simply because I intimated that American military command might have made some mistake in judgment at some point. So, I know I am flying in dangerous territory by challenging America's holiest document.

But The Proverbial Skeptic does not exist to steer clear of our sacred cows, it exists to scrutinize them. And what could be more American, more Jeffersonian, than rigorously applying enlightenment reasoning without regard for what is held as holy or sacrosanct?

Now, this post does not serve to denigrate the social value of treating everybody of every race, creed, religion, and sexuality in the same way under the law. That value is something which we must continue to aspire to. I understand the danger in throwing this idea out.

Indeed, in history's most famous disagreement with this phrase, just such a danger was almost realized. Said Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy: "The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically... Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."

We can all agree to condemn that statement. But it's important that we do not condemn it out of hand. It, racism, is not only repugnant because it's conclusion is morally wrong, but also because its premises are factually wrong. It simply isn't true that black people are inferior to white people. It simply isn't true that any level of actual inferiority could justify the horrors of slavery and second-class citizenship.

But, I hope to put this phrase aside without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By no means are all men [and women] created equal, but that fictional equality is not really what makes it right for us all to be treated fairly under the law.

I'll explain my claims one by one.

1) It is not true that it is self-evident that all men are created equal because it is not self-evident:

Things can only be self-evidently true if they are "analytically true", or if the truth is part of a definition of the thing. It is self-evidently true that a bachelor is unmarried, because it is part of the definition of a bachelor that he is unmarried.

Including "self-evident" appears to be an attempt on the part of Jefferson to avoid having to back up his claims altogether. Of course, by bothering to appeal to peoples rights' being endowed by the Creator he betrays that he does not really believe it to be self-evident, because he sees fit to provide other, outside evidence.

2) It is not true that it is self-evident that all men are created equal because all men [and women] are not created equal:

While this belief, true or not, seems to be life-affirming, humanistic and positive, it really is the opposite. People are different from one another, and some of those differences represent genuinely positive or negative traits. Sure, it genuinely happens to be a neutral issue which race you are, or which gender(s) you are attracted to.

Nonetheless, it really is better to be smart than to not be smart. It really is better to be fast than to be slow. It really is better to be sane than insane. How much it is better is something we can debate.

But, the idea that our traits don't make us different, and therefore unequal, is simply absurd. It is exceeded in its absurdity only by the idea that we are not different from one another at all.

This is the heart of my claim. The idea that we are all equal is not life-affirming. It's inhuman and anti-human. Our inequalities, differences, quirks, and dissimilarities are what is interesting about us, and they are the life-force of any society, especially America.

3) We are still entitled to certain "inalienable rights" and equal protection under the law regardless of whether or not it is self-evident that all men are created equal:

The range of types of human may be a broad spectrum of unequal characteristics. But that by no means entails the idea that some people, wherever they may be on that spectrum, are not still entitled to fairness and justice.

The reason that people ought to be treated fairly and equally is not that they aren't different from one another. Rather, it's that they have agency, positive and negative experiences, preferences, and feelings. If we want to describe something as being kindly, or as diminishing suffering, we use the word "humane", which simply means "like a human". That says a lot about us.

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Videos

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

Why eating ice cream is linked to shark attacks

Why are soda and ice cream each linked to violence? This article delivers the final word on what people mean by "correlation does not imply causation."

popular
  • Ice cream consumption is actually linked to shark attacks.
  • But the relationship is correlative, not causal.
  • It's pretty stunning how media outlets skip over this important detail.
Keep reading Show less
Change.org
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tongue-in-cheek petition, whose stated aim is to reduce the national debt, has been signed more than 8,600 times as of Tuesday.
  • Selling Montana, the fourth largest state in the country, would constitute the largest land deal since the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The national debt is often a source of concern for individuals, but the chances of the U.S. defaulting on its debts are relatively low — in part because the bulk of the national debt is owned by the American public.
Keep reading Show less

The answer to Skynet? A democratically controlled supermind.

The plan to stop megacorps from owning superintelligence is already underway.

Videos
  • A.I. technology is often developed within the proprietary silos of big tech companies. What if there was an open, decentralized hub for A.I. developers to share their creations? Enter SingularityNET.
  • The many A.I.s in the network could compete with each other to provide services for users but they could also cooperate, giving way to an emergent-level mind: artificial general intelligence.
  • SingularityNET is powered by blockchain technology, meaning whatever 'digital organism' emerges will not be owned or controlled by any one person, company or government.
Keep reading Show less