Thursday, May 14, 2009

Musings on Moral Equality

I have at the tip of my mind a series of essays on how the ideal of moral equality can be described in terms of the proper relationships of individuals and communities to the general categories of labor, land, and capital. The problem I am having is the verbalization of the reasoning behind the concept itself: Why should people be regarded as being morally equal?

At first, I wonder if it's even necessary. For me, the ideal that all people have equal moral rights to things like freedom, even existence, is self evident. It's axiomatic. It's not something I question, and as is the case with all people, my natural presumption is that everybody shares this axiom, and that disagreement is a matter of the interpretation of the logical consequences of this axiom.

But this isn't the case, because a lot of people, quite possibly a majority, seem to have a tiered system whereby some people matter more than others not only in practice, but in reality. At the top is the self. Just below it is a circle of immediate family and close friends. Next comes one's extended family and peer group. Below that comes the primary identity group, whether it national, religious, racial, class based, or otherwise. There may be a series of secondary identity groups below that, but, at the very bottom, come the "unpersons."

Certainly, one cannot get away from the reality of distance, that one is only capable of carrying out responsibility to a limited number of people. But I see, in the voraciousness with which large numbers of people are able to literally cry out for the blood of people they've never met and who have not been proven to have done any harm, a moral relativism. "We" do not only know one another better, "We" are not only more able to both to help and to judge one another, "We" matter more than "they." "We" have a right to rob, oppress, or even kill anyone we perceive as a threat, so long as they aren't one of "Us." "Our" existence takes priority over "theirs." The standard of proof, if even necessary, is lower for convicting "them" of wrongdoing; and on the flip side we should stand united against any of "their" accusations against our own.

Thus, a nobleman has the right to harass, rob, or even kill a peasant, simply because he is not a fellow noble... but woe to the peasant who strikes his better! Master may beat his slave mercilessly, deprive him of food, or take any other measures he feels appropriate... but a slave who so much as glares at his master may be struck dead on the spot. Native may abuse, torment, con, or even murder foreigner at will... but a foreigner who so much as grumbles against his treatment has overstepped his bounds. Any from the conqueror's people may do what they will to the natives, and at worst will be transferred back to the homeland for "rehabilitation", but if a native too slow to obey his conqueror's orders he may be justifiably shot, in "self defense." And if my brother strikes you, it was justified... no investigation is needed. However, if you strike my brother, that demands retribution!

Certainly, some people place some identity group above themselves in their moral hierarchy: family, nation, religious organization, or what have you. Such people can potentially dehumanize to a greater degree, since such a hierarchy requires that they submit their own will to that of the group... meaning that if their group is at odds with another, the individual member has no choice but to respond with hostility to individuals of the other group!

My general moral hierarchy has but one or two tiers. One contains the mass of humanity... all of them, regardless of nation, race, creed, or even possibly occupation... and within this, men are judged by their actions, not their origins. The only other possible tier is one above, the one in which God resides, with authority over all men individually and directly.

Certainly, there are structures of authority within that second tier, but those grants of authority are always exchanges in which both seek and deserve advantage; one is not "above" the other, but rather simply has something different to offer than the other. Laborers exchange their efforts for access to resources and knowledge they otherwise would not have. Laymen exchange their deference and resources for the wisdom of his priest of pastor. Soldiers submit to their commanding officers in exchange for a better chance of surviving, or at least not dying in vain. Children submit to their parents in exchange for sustenance, guidance, and the approval all children desire from their parents. Husbands and wives submit to one another in exchange for the various things one can obtain only from the other.

However, in any relationship, both sides have the right to terminate the relationship if they believe they are being cheated or abused. Note that the following are not necessarily established rights in our society, but rather things I believe flow naturally from the notion of the moral equality of humankind. The laborer can quit his job and seek another, while his boss may fire him. Laymen can stop listening to their clergymen, and a clergyman may step down from serving an ungrateful congregation. Soldiers, should they believe their commander unfit for leadership, can decline to serve further; the commander can likewise refuse the service of any he regards as unfit for duty. The child, though he must rely upon his own abilities for sustenance in such a case, is under no moral compulsion to return to his parents should he decide to leave; likewise, though despicable to consider, I can see no profit in attempting to force a parent that lacks a natural paternal instinct to support a despised child. And husbands and wives, though they should make every effort to continue the relationship for the sake of any children that might be involved, ought to have the right to unilateral separation.

This is my question to my readers: do you regard moral equality as an acceptable axiom (even if you don't think I've correctly applied it in the preceding paragraph)? Or is it really okay to judge men more or less favorably depending upon their social distance from yourself? Figuratively speaking, if your brother wronged another, would you protect him from the consequences? If another acted against your brother, would you consider that in itself a wrong, without investigating what your brother may have done to provoke that response? Is it truly acceptable that US contractors, when found guilty of crimes, are simply transferred back to America, while an Iraqi or Afghani that is too slow to obey orders barked by soldiers can be shot on site often with little consequences? Is it okay that a policeman need only claim he was "scared" to get away with shooting a dog, let alone a man, but that the average person is often denied even the right to carry a weapon... and that regardless of the outcome, a policeman may not generally be prosecuted for his crimes, but only "disciplined"?

I am actively requesting feedback on this one. Is moral equality axiomatic for you? Do you have a deeper reasoning for it? Or do you regard moral equality as a falsehood? What do you propose in its place? Why?

No comments: