Well, I have a new (my first) article out in the latest issue of Political Research Quarterly. The subject of the article is John Locke’s understanding of human equality. I plan on writing at least a couple of blog posts on the major ideas from the article, which I would like to make as accessible as possible to anyone interested in politics.
Equality is a tough concept. If someone at the grocery store says “all of these oranges are equal” then they are probably referring to something about the oranges–some quality or characteristic they share. Maybe they are all of similar size. Maybe the color of each orange is more or less the same. Perhaps the comment was made in reference to the marked price of the oranges.
When someone says all human beings are equal, they are likewise probably thinking of a particular quality or characteristic that all human beings share. Often, the quality in mind is not size or color, but value. Not monetary value, but ethical value. All human beings, it is often thought, have equal ethical value.
This is not intended to mean that all people are equally ethical in terms of their behavior. No one would deny that some people are completely self-absorbed jerks. Far worse, some people commit murder, rape, arson, engage even in the kidnapping and selling of human beings. Some people are ethically terrible–the worst of the worst. Nevertheless, as human beings, they still have equal ethical value. What do we mean by this? Usually that we cannot treat them any worse than they deserve. They deserve to receive something that is indicated by a very noble term: justice–the kind of justice being a human being gets you. In contrast, consider the aforementioned oranges, which deserve little more (we think) than to be sliced up and stuck on the edge of the glass of an alcoholic beverage.
What is it about human beings that get them this elevated ethical value? It’s hard to say for sure, but many of us would be horrified to hear someone claim that some human beings are more valuable than others. Maybe it has something to do with our conscience, but lets leave this question aside for now. The main point first of all is that most people agree with this, but also that not all people do.
Some people will accept, expect, even demand unequal treatment of human beings within society. There are all manner of criteria that supposedly separate equal human beings from the unequal ones. Some are racists, sexists, xenophobic, bigoted for one reason or another (attitudes that could originate from family, culture, religion, etc.). Such people don’t want equal treatment and they don’t believe in human equality at any level. This doesn’t necessarily make them an imminent threat to others, but this is how they feel if you ask them.
Now I’ll end with the big question: if all human beings are entitled to equal treatment in terms of ethical value, and some human beings don’t believe in this idea about equal treatment and what is just and fair, does it make practical sense to group all of these people together into the same political system, with the same political rights?
Or, practically speaking, should something like the right to vote be taken away from those in the political system that desire to oppress others?
It is helpful here to not think necessarily of a developed democracy like the United States. Think instead, for example, of former dictatorships that are transitioning to democracy. Some groups–perhaps very large groups–within these societies will openly seek to restore tyranny. Should they, for justice to be observed, be allowed to vote?