Last time, I argued that human beings are equal in an ethical sort of way: they are equal in terms of the dignity that all humans deserve to be treated with. Next I would like to add a few words on what it is about human beings that gives them this special dignity.
A couple common answers from philosophers across history involve, generally, the concepts of reason and of free will. For centuries it has been debated whether what truly separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom is one of these special faculties. For some reason, it has been very important in these debates to identify the exact thing that grounds our equality, the exact thing that “it” is. Epic debates have gone on over what “reason” even is. Is it the same as rationality–our ability to consider reasons before acting? Or is “reason” something less instrumental and more associated with good stuff, like peace, decency, and morality? For example, when someone is acting rude or stubborn, we might say that they are being “unreasonable,” the term here carrying only bad connotations. Or think of how the motives of a terror group is often said to be “beyond reason” because its considerations are so destructive and immoral. But when a brutal serial killer is able to evade a brilliant Sherlock Holmes sort of detective, both are regarded as highly rational–genius even–caught up in a high-stakes chess match with the clock ticking.
Obviously, there is plenty of matter here to debate and analyze, and it’s no surprise such debates have been going on just about forever.
In the widely accepted scholarship on Lockean equality (what human equality is according to classical liberal John Locke), Jeremy Waldron definitely holds the title for the most creative interpretation of what this “it” is that makes all human beings equal and dignified. He argues that for Locke, equality is based on human beings’ ability to form abstract ideas — to imagine things that are abstracted away from concrete particulars. This faculty is supposedly what allows us to imagine the idea “god,” and then to infer that we need to obey God, and follow his rules. The idea here is that, of all species, only man can think of god, so only man can worship and obey God. This would serve, clearly, as a highly significant distinction than human beings have compared to the rest of living beings.
I think all of these accounts of human equality are very intriguing, but does the question really need to be so difficult to answer? Some more simple justifications could be:
- Divine likeness. The Bible says human beings are made in the image of God. Nobody knows what God actually looks like, so every human being gets included in this special category. If you look human, you look like God, and you carry a special dignity. Maybe that could work.
- Human likeness. Leaving aside the looking like God thing, is there any significance to the fact that we all sort of look like each other? I think there certainly is. If you look like you had human parents, then when I look at you, I see a bit of myself. In fact, if I saw someone that looked like they had even just 1 human parent, and 1 parent perhaps from another species, I would still want that creature treated with human dignity. I would see a piece of myself trapped or infused in that body, and have tremendous sympathy for it. Also, when animals look like humans, or when they make eye contact, and you see and feel very similar eyes to your own looking back, there’s a connection there based on likeness. I don’t think in these examples I need to see a reflection of a god I’ve never seen. That I see a reflection of myself is, I think, enough, and the true origin of my and others’ dignity-granting sympathies.
Okay, but what is so important about likeness? Why does it generate so much sympathy and recognition that it has been the generally universal sense of mankind (if my answer is correct) to endow all of those sharing in this likeness the protected status of “having human dignity?”
Well, to answer that I want to quickly return to those old dusty philosophers and borrow the idea that our self-love is our strongest and most fundamental passion. In every way that we see and approve of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and love ourselves for it, that love must naturally flow towards others that show the same thoughts, feelings, and actions. And because we love them, we want to honor them and protect them. I think it’s more or less that simple.