All People Are Equal — Mostly

All human beings are equal. Let’s agree on that.

But we must add a qualification:

All human beings are equal in the morally relevant sense.

They might or might not be equal in other ways.

Let me tell you about Pete, my best friend in high school. We were both on the rifle team. Every day that the firing range was open, I was there practicing. I got very good, and I qualified at the highest level. But I never got as good as Pete, who never practiced. He was a natural shooter.

Or let me tell you about Bill, a friend in college. He could talk to women — effortlessly, charmingly, and successfully. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, nor was he even particularly smart in the way that I’m smart. But he could do things I couldn’t do.

Or let me tell you about one of my younger brothers. He’s good with money. From the time he was about seven, I borrowed money from him at interest rather than get it interest-free — with a stern lecture — from our father. I can do calculus, number theory, and linear algebra, but I can’t balance a checkbook. I never could. My brother can do things I can’t do.

We are all equal in the morally relevant sense that we have the same human rights and human dignity. But we are unequal in many other ways.

That said, it’s better to avoid talking about unequal abilities. If we can’t avoid it, we should do it very carefully.

The main reason is simple consideration for others. My friend Pete never said that he was a better shooter than I was. We both knew it, but for him to say it might have hurt my feelings. Likewise, my friend Bill never mocked my social ineptitude. My brother gives me financial advice and doesn’t belittle me for needing it.

When we talk about equality, we must do so with respect for two things:

  • We must respect the facts.
  • We must respect the people whom our statements might affect.

In addition, we must avoid doing a very harmful thing:

  • We must not draw unwarranted conclusions based on the facts.

Lots of people are better than I am at lots of things. But that gives them no special rights over me, nor does it diminish my inherent dignity and worth as a person.

Lots of people are worse than I am at lots of things. But that gives me no special rights over them, nor does it diminish their inherent dignity and worth as people.

Here are the ways in which all people are equal:

  • They all have the same basic human rights. Whether they have human rights simply in virtue of human nature, or because they are all children of God, they all have the same human rights.
  • They all have the same basic human dignity. Uniquely among biological creatures we know, human beings are self-aware. They not only have experiences, but at a second level, they are aware of themselves having the experiences. That self-awareness gives them what I call “reflexive self-value.” Whether we value their lives and welfare or not, they still have human value to themselves. Their value and dignity as people are inalienable — as in the U.S. Declaration of Independence‘s phrase “unalienable rights” — because they continue to exist no matter what anyone else thinks or does.
  • There are things we may not morally do to them. Their human rights and human dignity surround them with a “moral force field” that forbids us to cause them avoidable harm or suffering, even if we think it’s to our advantage.
  • There are things we must morally do for them. Because they have reflexive self-value, their lives are important no matter what we think about them. Their welfare matters. We can choose to be good people or bad; but if we choose to be good people, then we accept certain obligations to our fellow human beings. If they need our help, and if we can give it in a reasonable way, then we should.

It’s not always easy to apply these principles. For example, consider the case of “illegal immigrants,” “undocumented workers,” or whichever term you prefer. They came to the United States in violation of the law. Echoing the title of a book by Israel’s Meir Kahane, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump says “they must go.”

For the sake of argument, assume the worst: illegal immigrants are a social burden. They commit more crime than American citizens. They use tax-supported social services and force cash-strapped institutions to hire interpreters while skimping on other priorities. And they take jobs that Americans definitely would do if they could get them.

Even if all that is true, illegal immigrants are still human beings. They have human rights and human dignity. There are certain things you morally can’t do to them. There are certain things you morally must do for them.

However, you have the same obligations to American citizens, who were here first and whose welfare is hurt by illegal immigrants. What should you do? If you know a clear-cut moral answer, then you’re wiser than I am. (That gives you no special rights over me, except that I have to wash your car once a month.)

Abstract principles are easy. Real life is a lot more challenging.

Thank God we all have human rights. At least we’re all equal in that way.

Copyright 2015 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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