Equality: How So?

In the United Kingdom, a sweeping piece of proposed legislation known as the “Equality Bill” sought to install various homosexual “rights” and cast opposition to them as discrimination. Benedict XVI said it would have imposed “unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.” Here in northern California, one cannot go far without also encountering that same code wordEqualityon lawn signs and bumper stickers.

It is no coincidence that the same word is employed to further the same broad agenda. It should not be surprising to learn that Spain’s socialist government had “equality” in mind when it recently imposed an educational curriculum that openly states that “nature has given us sex so we can use it with another girl, with a boy or with an animal.”

Words matter. Some are more malleable than others. As Josef Pieper noted in his classic Abuse of LanguageAbuse of Power, the Sophists manipulated words “with exceptional awareness of linguistic nuances” to the point of “corrupting the meaning and the dignity of the very same words.” Modern-day Sophists cultivate the word “equality” to intimidate opponents of a particular agenda into silence. Who, after allaside from bigotswould dare oppose equality? It should be plainly evident, then, that “the orientation towards reality, truth itself. . . .can in all honesty not be the decisive concern of those who aim at verbal artistry.”

Those equality slogans are, like “any discourse detached from the norms of reality. . . . mere monologue”; they are the “the opposite of communication” (announcing to others only their own imagined surplus of tolerance) since they, as with any communicated falsehood, aim to “prevent the other’s participation in reality.”

Equality has long been the great rallying cry of the Left, even as it is used to advance objectives that diametrically oppose the firmest basis for our equality. We all know, deep down, that every one of us is created equal: we all have the same innate dignity before God. But we also know that no two people are exactly alike. We are manifestly not equal in terms of our personalities, talents, circumstances at birth, assets, or interests. The list could go on and on. No amount of artificial intervention can possibly “equalize” our infinitely diversified characteristics.

How, then, are we equal? John Paul II proposed (in both Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae) that it is “before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal.” Whether we are millionaires or mendicants, powerful politicians or peasants, gorgeous or unattractive, of this ethnicity or that, immigrant or native, man or woman, we all encounter reality and face the challenges of the moral life. The “demands of morality” may not sound particularly fun. They often aren’t. They ennoble and uplift, but can be taxing.

That truly great equalizermorality is all too often viewed today as a draconian infringement on individual autonomy, so other agendas and pursuits proliferate in its place. It is not what is good or what is right, but what is efficient or useful, what on balance yields more benefits or what expands the horizons of personal autonomy that earns approbation in the major political and bioethical questions of the day. But as George Weigel succinctly put it, viewing ethical dilemmas in that way “blunts the edge of moral analysis and drains the moral life of its inherent drama.”

Drama is a helpful way to look at the matter. Imagine, for example, how differently Les Miserables would have turned out if the hero, Jean Valjean had not complied with the demands of his inner voice when, living prosperously and uprightly under an alias, he is unexpectedly confronted with the fact that another man will likely soon be jailed in his place. What to do?

His first thought was self-preservation. Keep silent. But “what he wanted to keep out of doors had entered; what he wanted to render blind was looking upon him. His conscience.” Next, he carefully weighs alternative courses of action and (much like consequentialists today) convinces himself momentarily that the benefits of remaining quiet outweigh those of turning himself in: he has made an entire town come to life, and many people still count on him. He concludes that it is important to “carry on what I have begun, that I may do good.” But with that resolution, “he felt no joy.”

So he decides to turn himself in. If he had not made that noble and dramatic decision, can we imagine Les Miserables ever becoming so immensely popular? And isn’t it telling that even the fact that Valjean’s dilemma was so wrenching might temper but not eliminate the sense of letdown we would feel if he had made the opposite decision?

Few face such intense tests, yet everyone to some extent experiences the costs associated with doing the right thing; paying the price only boosts our admiration for the person who does so.

To deny people their place on the stage in the drama of their own lives is ultimately to dehumanize them. To exclude people from the inherent demands of moralityto give someone or some groups a perpetual hall passis to expel them from the orbit of equality.

We are far better off looking at equality as the perennial human drama, and supporting one another, with all the difficulty it entails.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.