Equality in a nutshell

justice religion Theology / Biblical Studies

Religion, rather than secularism, provides a secure basis for human equality and rights.

Most, if not all, modern declarations on human rights are premised on a doctrine of equality: The view that there is some fundamental sense in which all people are prima facie worthy of equal respect as equals in a just society, regardless of race, sex, strength, colour, intellect etc, and therefore we should treat them as equals or strive for some measure of equality in outcomes (even if not total equality in outcomes).

But if naturalism is true (there is no god and the physical world is all that exists), then there is no basic sense in which we are equal. We share some genetic information in common, but we all have different size, shape, strength, colour, intelligence, work ethics, skills, attractiveness, social utility and so on.

Therefore if naturalism is true, then most, if not all, modern declarations on human rights are premised on a false view of human beings.

By contrast, if a theistic view is correct (i.e. there is a god), then although basic equality does not automatically follow, basic equality is possible. For if theism is true, then there exists the possibility that human beings are intentionally vested with dignity by the intent of their creator, that their creator has a basic love of humanity, that humanity is in some sense made in the image of their creator to be like their creator, and that their creator requires us to regard each other with a basic respect.

Theism provides a metaphysical basis for the liberal doctrine of equality, but naturalism does not. The awkwardness of this truth for some people is only exacerbated by the fact that some opponents of religion accuse it of perpetuating inequality and claiming that a secular outlook is more conducive to human rights.

Discuss.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 6 comments… add one }

  • lotharson February 11, 2014, 12:39 pm

    Hello Glenn.

    I developed an argument for the incompatibility of materialism and moral realism:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/on-the-compability-of-materialism-and-moral-realism-von-der-kompatibilitat-des-materialismus-und-des-moralischen-realismus/

    If you find some time, I would be glad to learn your opinion on this as a professional philosopher.

    I think that other forms of atheism allowing for the existence of non-material entities are compatible with the existence of an objective morality, so my argument is limited in scope.

    It seems to me that hardcore reductive materialism is much more widespread among English-speaking atheists than among their French and German counterparts.

    Generally discussions between believers and unbelievers are far more enjoyable and pleasant in those countries.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

  • Chris Bowers February 11, 2014, 7:02 pm

    Non-theistic views can account for human rights. Materialistic views, however, cannot. There are for instance, people who believe in the supernatural and in the intangible existence of axiomatic truths who are Non-theistic.

    Naturalism is different than materialism. For instance, according to naturalism ghosts could exist. But according to materialism, they could not.

    There are also people who believe in axiomatic eternal truths but are atheistic. Some athiests have likened moral truth (as an invisible eternal immaterial state) as akin to logic (another invisible immaterial eternal state).

    The question then of course is, if you believe that there exists certain invisible immaterial eternal states, how is that much different than God? The only difference is that God has sentience, but in other words those Atheists are really non-sentient Theists.

  • Glenn February 11, 2014, 10:33 pm

    When it comes to non-theistic views, I limited my comments to naturalism. There are some atheists who maintain that moral truths, including truths about human rights, can be grounded non-naturally (Eric Wielenberg is one such philosopher).

    I don’t share your view that such views really can give an adequate account of moral truths or rights, but explaining why would have taken me far from the point I was making here. I do say a little (but only a little) about the plausibility of a non-natural but impersonal grounding of moral truths in the podcast in Episode 48 on the moral argument for theism.

  • Alabaster Livinston February 11, 2014, 10:40 pm

    Chris,

    A similar thought has occurred to me. I have acquaintances who I wouldn’t characterize as theistic, but have expressed belief is some form of supernaturalism (excluding non-theistic faiths such as Buddhism). While I won’t disregard the idea out of hand, I haven’t heard or read about any attempts to ground morality from a worldview that posits supernaturalism, but denies the existence of being similar to God. Any idea what that argument might be?

  • John Quin February 11, 2014, 11:28 pm

    Perhaps on naturalism we are equal in a sense in that our objective worth is zero for all of us.
    Beyond all the existential arguments for why one might want to treat others as valuable I have found that many atheists I know take it for granted that persons (a fuzzy grouping) are intrinsically valuable.

  • Alabaster Livingston February 20, 2014, 8:16 pm

    Hey John,

    I’ve been thinking about what you said, and there’s a part of me that wants to agree with what you’re saying, and there’s another part that wants to say that that doesn’t work, since on naturalism, there is nothing that possesses any inherent value, since valuation on the part of any beings is always going to be subjective.

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