Nature laughs in the face of egalitarian fantasies of human equality.
Written by Bo Winegard
At the peak of his athletic powers, Usain Bolt, a record-setting Jamaican sprinter, could run 100 meters in roughly 9.8 seconds. At the peak of my athletic powers, I, an erstwhile American academic, could run 100 meters in roughly 30 seconds. Had I trained diligently from an early age, I like to believe that I would have broken the 20-second barrier—but perhaps only with a strong wind at my back.
So large is the disparity in talent between me and Usain Bolt that no conceivable intervention—no diet, no training program, no performance enhancing drug—would have equalized our abilities. In any imaginable athletic endeavor, I am inferior to Usain Bolt.
Most of us can relate to this, for most of us can recognize the distance between our talents and the talents of the extraordinary. (Even if we excel in one domain of life—athletics, intellect, music—we do not excel all domains.)
Sometimes the recognition of human excellence and inequality is a source of delight, e.g., we see Steph Curry hit an impossible three-point shot from 10 feet behind the line, and we are exhilarated. And sometimes it is a source of despair, e.g., we watch Stevie Ray Vaughan play a guitar solo behind his back and realize that even if we (deliberately) practiced for 10,000 hours, we could not play that same solo holding the guitar in front of our body.
But whatever its effect, human inequality is undeniable. Some humans are faster, smarter, taller, more beautiful than others. Conversely, some humans are slower, stupider, shorter, and uglier than others.
And yet, though human inequality is obvious and inescapable, modern sensibilities, molded by years of egalitarian propaganda, find it morally abhorrent—an intolerable affront to human dignity and social justice. Therefore, human inequality has become taboo, discussed only in a vernacular full of motte-and-bailey evasions in which equality can be confidently asserted but quickly qualified if challenged. “No, no, no. Not that kind of equality. Nobody believes in that kind of equality.”
But the kind of equality that is not only asserted, but also defended with an armory of insults and accusations, is never specified. As intended, this ambiguity engenders fear and deters honest discussion.
Since the denial of (some kind of) human inequality is pervasive and pernicious, encouraging, as it does, the suppression of science and the rejection of objective standards of beauty and excellence, we should explore the topic of equality further, clarifying where popular discourse obfuscates and speaking candidly where popular discourse dissembles. In an era dominated by egalitarianism, by the triumph of what Nietzsche termed “slave morality,” and by the pervasive belief in sexual and racial equality, this will surely require espousing some iconoclastic ideas. As Betty Davis said, fasten your seatbelts.
The first task is to examine different potential meanings of equality. So far as I can tell, there are four distinct (though related) conceptions of equality—which I list below from most maximal to the most minimal.
1: Empirical Equality: Individuals are largely interchangeable and genotypically the same. All differences are caused by environmental forces.
2: Metaphysical Equality: Individuals are equal “in the eyes of God.” They have equal dignity and worth.
3: Moral Equality: Individuals deserve equal moral consideration and one individual should not be favored over another in a moral dilemma.
4: Political Equality: Individuals are born free and have certain inherent rights. The law treats individuals equally and does not explicitly favor high status or wealthy people.
As noted above, many egalitarians purposefully obfuscate these distinctions, knowing that most people in the West are at least strongly committed to political equality, if not a more expansive version of equality, and would therefore be appalled by anybody who claimed that blacks or women or homosexuals did not deserve political equality. This polemical strategy of conflating different conceptions of equality is surprisingly effective and therefore lamentably common.
A race realist will contend, for example, that there are large IQ gaps between blacks and whites, and egalitarians will pretend that the person is actually arguing that blacks should be second class citizens. Or a scholar of sex differences will contend that there are large strength gaps between men and women, and egalitarians will pretend that the person is actually arguing that women should be subordinate to men. The subterfuge, of course, is to conflate one kind of equality with another—specifically, in these examples, to conflate empirical equality with political equality.
But an argument against empirical equality is not necessarily an argument against political equality. Each conception of equality is distinct though obviously related to the others; therefore, a rejection or embrace of one does not have inevitable implications for the others. One could reject empirical, metaphysical, and moral equality, but still endorse political equality. Conversely, one could endorse empirical equality, but reject metaphysical, moral, and political equality.
My view is that the only tenable and desirable form of equality is political equality. The rest are either obviously false, e.g., empirical equality, or muddled and unhelpful, e.g., moral equality. However, living in an egalitarian age, I recognize that this view is provocative, to say the least. Thus, the rest of this essay defends that view. I begin by examining each of the other conceptions of equality and highlighting their shortcomings.
Empirical equality. The most extravagant and sweeping assertion of human equality is that humans are roughly equal physically and mentally—they have the same basic potential, the same latent talents and skills. Since a cursory glance at the world, full as it is with sundry humans, some tall, some short, some thin, some fat, some smart, some stupid, seems emphatically to refute idea of empirical equality, explicit claims for it are rare.
However, more indirect (and strategically ambiguous) endorsements of this type of equality are not uncommon. A popular psychological theory, for example, appears to assert that expertise does not require innate talent; instead, it only requires deliberate practice. If true, this would mean that humans are equal at least in the potential to become experts and that vast disparities in human performance in many domains, from athletics to academics, are largely caused by nurture, not nature.
And of course, Marxism, still stalking the world stage (not as tragedy but as farce), is premised on a conception of a pliable human nature, which is largely the product of external forces—though Marx’s own writings are peppered with claims about racial variation that would crimson with outrage the face of a modern progressive.
That empirical equality is untrue seems so obvious that I hesitate to marshal any arguments against it. Human differences are widespread, copious, and caused mostly by differences in genes or in hard-to-understand forces in the environment (including developmental noise). Accordingly, most people are not blank slatists; they accept that humans have an innate nature and that genes play at least some role in human variation. Perhaps they are selective blank slatists, contending that some morally significant difference or another is largely caused by the environment, but this is quite different from a commitment to an extreme version of human plasticity.
Of course, sex and race differences are more controversial than individual differences, and I will not cover them in detail here, for they are topics too vast, too incendiary, and too nuanced for a paragraph or two. However, I will note that, at minimum, races and sexes are different from each other at this moment in every known Western society. The notion that sex and race differences are entirely culturally created is implausible, and, to my knowledge, no serious scholar has suggested that races or sexes are innately identical. Even those scholars who contend that race is a social construction and who castigate the putative racists who promote race realism will admit that humans are different across the globe partially because of genes.
Metaphysical Equality. Though most people, even those who support progressive political ideals, do not endorse a robust version of empirical equality, they do endorse a robust version of human equality. One way to reconcile this apparent contradiction is to claim that although humans are different and unequal empirically, they are metaphysically equal. This does for human equality what Kant did for freedom when he argued that the phenomenal world is causally determined but the noumenal world is not (as it lies beyond the realm of causality), and therefore, the noumenal agent, might be free. Freedom and causality are not contradictory. Rather, like the rabbit-duck illusion, they can both be true simultaneously from different perspectives.
Metaphysical equality argues that humans are simultaneously equal and unequal. Insofar as they have different traits, talents, and propensities, they are unequal; but insofar as they are the same “in the eyes of god” (or some secular alternative), they are equal. Proponents of this view often declare that humans have “equal dignity” or some similar phrase, arguing that equality is perfectly consistent with human variation because equality is not an empirical proposition. Although this sounds pleasant, and it certainly solves some problems for those who accept the reality of human variation, it’s also vulnerable to obvious rebuttals. And it seems perhaps too much like a rhetorical consolation prize, a lofty and poetic but vacuous discourse that is similar to denying atheism by adopting pantheism. (“I am not an atheist because I believe that god is nature” is akin to “I am not one of those bad people who rejects human equality because I believe that humans are equal in the eyes of god.”)
My view, though one I have accepted with reluctance and only recently, is that phrases such as “being equal in the eyes of god,” or “having equal dignity,” or “having equal worth” are virtually meaningless—they are gossamer sentiments thrown over the barbs of reality. To see this, let us begin with an extreme case of two different humans, Ted Bundy and Oskar Schindler. What could the claim that Ted Bundy and Oskar Schindler have “equal worth” possibly mean? Certainly it does not mean (1) that we should treat them equally; (2) that we should respect them equally; (3) that we should talk about them equally; (4) that they have an equal chance for metaphysical reward (if such a reward exists). No serious person would claim that Bundy and Schindler deserved equal anything so far as I can tell; and, in fact, many serious people would claim that Bundy deserved brutal, painful, lasting punishment (and humiliation) for his ghastly crimes, perhaps terminating in eternal suffering in hell. (Certainly, Dante would have placed him in the inferno.)
What holds for Bundy and Schindler mutatis mutandis holds for any pair of people. Even monozygotic twins are different and probably deserve a different distribution of rewards and punishments. Of course, proponents of metaphysical (or “fundamental” or “basic”) equality are not unaware of this obvious fact about the world. And they would probably respond that basic human worth and equality attach only to the abstract human, the human before he or she acts in the world. The important claim, then, is not that Bundy and Schindler are equal, but that nobody is born inevitably to be a king or a peasant, a master or a slave, a dominant or a subordinate. In other words, the claim for metaphysical equality is a claim against a hereditary aristocracy (and other forms of non-meritocratic social arrangements).
This attack on aristocracy was, of course, historically important, and I don’t want to minimize the value of effective slogans, but calling opposition to an unnatural, kin-based aristocracy “metaphysical equality” seems like a kind of rhetorical legerdemain. One can easily champion meritocratic social policies and oppose a rigid blood-based hierarchy without espousing the view that humans are metaphysically equal. In fact, beyond rhetorical effect, it is difficult to see what “humans have equal worth” adds to the statement, “I believe that people who are the most qualified should be chosen for the job.” Human inequality is perfectly consistent with meritocracy. And though pleasant-sounding phrases about human worth might appeal to egalitarian impulses by softening the harsh reality of human variation, they do not seem to add anything to a mature understanding of the world.
Moral equality. The basic assertion of moral equality is that humans deserve equal moral consideration and therefore that one should not favor any particular person over another in a moral conflict or dilemma. People have equal moral worth and morality requires impartiality. Thus morality requires treating people equally. Utilitarianism, a powerful, popular, and sometimes provocatively counterintuitive moral philosophy, asserts a version of moral equality, contending that the mental states of all sentient creatures are (in principle) equally valuable.
A similar objection to the Bundy-Schindler equality objection seems also to undermine moral equality. Suppose, for example, that we are confronted with the dilemma of two burning buildings inside which dwell twenty people. One building is full of convicted criminals; one is full of upstanding citizens. We can only save one of the buildings from conflagration. What do we do? Should we choose by chance, perhaps by flipping a coin? Or should we save the building full of upstanding citizens, condemning the twenty convicted criminals to certain (and painful) death? A robust version of moral equality does not provide a guide for choosing since all the people are “morally equal” and therefore equally worthy of our moral solicitude. On the other hand, common sense clearly recommends saving the upstanding community members and allowing the others to die.1
People are not morally equal; and they do not deserve equal moral concern. Violent people are not worth as much as peaceful people. Selfish people are not worth as much as cooperative people. Inveterate liars are not worth as much as generally honest people. And on and on. Furthermore, contrary to the principles of some versions of utilitarianism, iniquitous people—and here I mean truly wicked and depraved people—should not only experience less pleasure than other people, but they should also be made to suffer for their crimes. A world in which Ted Bundy flourishes is a less just world than one in which he suffers.
Those who advocate moral equality might respond that this is all beside the point. Moral equality is a claim against moral aristocracy; it is a claim against favoring one person, e.g., a wealthy landowner, against another person, e.g., a poor peasant, simply because one person is a landowner and the other person is a peasant. It is not a claim that the morally wicked deserve equal treatment to the morally laudable. After all, we punish criminals, and we reward the righteous. Moral equality, in other words, is consistent with praise and blame, punishment and reward.
These contentions are all perfectly reasonable, and most moderns would not advocate a moral system in which high status people were explicitly favored over low status people. But this, it seems to me, is very different from asserting that people are born morally equal. And it does not address more complicated issues about moral value in which equality seems not only to defy commonsense but also to defy moral decency. If humans are morally equal, then humans are morally interchangeable. The pains and pleasures of any person are equal to those of another. The moral scale, like a broken compass, is fixed in perpetual balance. The anguish of an irascible boss who belittles his workers is as bad as the anguish of an altruistic nurse who solaces the dying.
The abstract man argument. Many defenders of metaphysical and moral equality resort to what I will call the abstract man argument. In my view, this argument is a type of motte-and-bailey fallacy because it is often forwarded only in retreat from a much bolder and more brazen assertion of equality. Nevertheless, even the narrowly conceived abstract man argument, a quite attenuated form of equality, fails.
The argument works like this. We are all born equal. We deserve equal respect and moral consideration. Until we act in the world. Then we become unique individuals with different traits, talents, and propensities. And because we behave differently, we deserve different moral treatment. Criminals deserve punishment. Principled people deserve praise. The equality about which we should care is not physical or actual equality, but only this hypothetical equality, this equality before actualization, as it were.
But this would be like claiming that all sculptures are created equal because hypothetically each block of marble could be carved into a beautiful (or an ugly) sculpture. It is a ghostly and virtually meaningless form of equality, one which few people would take seriously were it not for the pervasiveness of egalitarianism.
Each real human is endowed with certain potentials and proclivities—and even if a robust version of free will were true, humans would still be constrained by their genes and their environments to some degree or another. Somebody with two violent and unintelligent parents dwelling in a dilapidated house in a desolate town would be very unlikely to become a neurosurgeon in New York City. (Nobody is likely to become a neurosurgeon in New York City, but this person would be even less likely than other people.) If manifested traits and behaviors are not equal, then people are not born equal since they are not born with equal tendencies and opportunities.
The popularity of the abstract man argument supports my belief that assertions of metaphysical and moral equality are often attempts to placate egalitarian sensibilities rather than attempts to say something meaningful about humans. They are poetry, not prose. I have no objection to poetry, in fact, I quite like it, but we should recognize that although love might be like a red, red rose, it is not actually a red, red rose.
Political equality. Political equality is the most humble and plausible form of equality; it asserts that individuals should be treated equally under the law and that they should have the same rights as other similarly situated people. When Thomas Jefferson penned the now immortal words in the Declaration that all men are created equal he may have had something like this in mind, though he also might have meant that American colonists, as a collective, had certain political rights such as that of self-government. At any rate, his elevated rhetoric, enthusiastically celebrated by many who deplore the man himself, was almost certainly not an endorsement of metaphysical or moral equality.
Political equality does not require any implausible premises and is entirely consistent with human variation—individual, sexual, and racial. For although people are vastly different from one another, the law can treat them as equals for purposes of legal judgment. A person who steals from an antique shop should be punished regardless of his or her social status or life circumstances. Similarly, although people are vastly different from one another, the political system can treat them as equals for the purposes of democratic participation. One man or woman, one vote. Being wealthy or lionized has many perquisites, and certainly affords one greater potential political influence, but it does not entitle one to more votes than other people.
Political equality is like rule-based equality in a sport. Major League Baseball (MLB) players vary tremendously in their abilities. Some are celebrated stars, and some are struggling to stay on the team. But whatever their respective talents and abilities, they all are supposed to adhere to the same rules. Great players are not supposed to have smaller strike zones when they are batting than awful players. And great pitchers are not supposed to have larger strike zones when they are pitching. (At one time, great players probably did get the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps still do in other sports; but they are not supposed to get such benefits.)
Arguing that humans should be politically equal is not a descriptive claim about reality, but a normative claim about how people should be treated. Thus, political equality is literally socially constructed. For much of history, political inequality not only prevailed, but it was ardently defended. Political inequality was not, in other words, an unfortunate deviation from ideals; it was the ideal. Since at least the Enlightenment, however, many philosophers have advocated some form of political equality, contending that humans are born with innate and unalienable rights. These natural rights can become puzzling if interpreted metaphysically (e.g., what is the ontological status of a natural right?), but if one interprets them as aspirational, they are perfectly sensible: People should be treated equally under the law and should not be arbitrarily punished or dominated.
Egalitarianism is the modern world’s regnant ideology, and it is the foundation of radical progressivism (also called wokism), but it is severely at odds with reality. Humans are not the same. Races are not the same. Sexes are not the same. For just as some individuals are smarter or more athletic than other individuals, so too are some demographic groups. This fact may offend modern moral sensibilities but like sunlight through a shuttered window, human inequality inevitably intrudes. Reality is inescapable.
What is more, attempting to deny reality is costly. Egalitarians, for example, must resort to censorship and suppression to protect their erroneous worldview from contradictory data and argument. They also encourage rancor and resentment because they contend that divergences from equality are not based on objective criteria, but on biased or illusory criteria which white men have imposed upon society. Like bowerbirds destroying the displays of rivals, they attack excellence to elevate their own tribe’s achievements, often ridiculing great art and literature, even great science, for being too white and too male.
One of the most common tactics egalitarians use to defend their ideology is to conflate different conceptions of equality, pretending that when a scholar or intellectual asserts that races are not empirically equal, that scholar is actually asserting that races are not politically equal. Thus, they will often contend that race realists—e.g., Steve Sailer—believe that blacks are “genetically inferior” to whites.
Now, on the one hand, the claim that race realists believe some groups are “genetically inferior” to other groups on some traits is true and utterly innocuous. Since genes undisputedly play some role in human demographic variation, current phenotypic variation likely reflects underlying genetic variation. And some groups are smarter or more athletic than other groups. The same also applies to individuals. So, it is true in an empirical sense that some individuals are genetically inferior to other individuals since some individuals are less intelligent, less attractive, and less athletic than others.
But the reason this rhetorical argument (“This race realist believes in the genetic inferiority of blacks!”) is used so often and so effectively is because the term “inferior” is supercharged with value and suggests not just empirical inequality, but also political inequality. Inferior people should be subordinate, wallowing in the mud at the bottom of society with other inferior people, and obviously they should not enjoy equal rights with superior people.
This unpleasant but unavoidable connotation of inferior is precisely why few people actually use the word inferior, or at least are quite circumspect about using it, when discussing empirical differences. For example, people rarely claim that women are genetically inferior to men simply because they are less strong. Similarly, people rarely claim that people with genetically caused cognitive disorders are genetically inferior to others because they are less intelligent.
Precision is important when one is discussing topics that are contentious. And a claim about empirical equality, e.g., whites have higher average cognitive ability than blacks, is not a claim about political equality, e.g., whites should rule blacks.
Another tactic egalitarians use to defend their ideology is to resort to poetic but often vacuous language. Perhaps humans are not empirically equal, but they are metaphysically or morally equal.
If the arguments of this essay are correct, though, this poetic language generally muddles the topic, causing more confusion than enlightenment.
And if we wish to look at reality without blinking, we should accept that humans are not only not equal, but they are also not worthy of equal metaphysical or moral dignity (whatever that might mean). Some humans are born cruel, wanton, and depraved. They will injure and exploit others as casually as kids burning ants with a magnifying glass. Those who promote the claim that we are created with equal dignity must either reject this unpleasant fact, claiming that evil is not innate but is somehow imposed from the outside, or they must resort to abstractions and sophistries to align it with the commitment to moral and metaphysical equality.
The only form of equality available for a hard-headed realist is political equality because political equality is aspirational—it is about applying rules fairly. And it does not require a commitment to implausible empirical premises or convoluted metaphysics. It merely asserts that just as athletes who vary wildly in talents should be subject to the same rules, so too should citizens.
Nature has created us unequal. We should reject childish fantasies or erroneous ideologies that deny this. But natural inequality is not an invitation to arbitrary domination. We can accept human inequality while championing human freedom. And we can even respect the seductive power of Thomas Jefferson’s words just as we can respect the power of T. S. Eliot’s lines, “When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table,” so long as we don’t start claiming that the sky is actually a patient etherized upon a table.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
Support Aporia with a $6 monthly subscription and follow us on Twitter.
Utilitarianism is a complicated, nuanced moral philosophy, and I cannot possibly address it in detail. A utilitarian might, for example, argue that people deserve different moral treatment today because their expected contribution to utility tomorrow is different. A neurosurgeon, for example, might be more important to save than a crossing guard because she might increase utility more in the future than the crossing guard (on average). Therefore, if confronted with a burning-building dilemma in which one building housed thirty neurosurgeons and one housed thirty crossing guards, a utilitarian might argue that the thirty neurosurgeons should be saved. Equality of mental states leads, perhaps paradoxically, to moral inequality. This is only one possible argument and certainly one that many utilitarians would reject, which emphasizes the point: Utilitarianism is complicated.