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Civil Rights And Moral Equality

Why human moral equality is necessary but not sufficient for American civil rights

The following article should not even be necessary. Yet here we are.

The principle of human moral equality — the idea that all human beings, as such and without exception, are entitled to certain rights, respect, dignity, and the treatment as ends rather than means — is probably the most important revolution brought about by the Enlightenment. Aside perhaps from modern capitalism, no other idea has liberated so many people, protected so many from tyranny, and led so many to flourish.

It is the founding principle of modern democracy itself, and especially of the United States of America, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and anchored in the Constitution. And while the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” came with a huge asterisk regarding nonwhites, Abraham Lincoln required no mental gymnastics to argue that the rule is properly universal, that no asterisk is needed, and that all people are equal.

Conservatives may balk at the left’s understanding of equality as requiring back-end socioeconomic parity, or the equality of outcomes. But all modern conservatives should subscribe to human moral equality. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise if modern conservatism is to have a philosophical leg to stand on.

Take the pro-life movement, whether against abortion or euthanasia. The movement’s core principle is all lives are worth living and preserving, and we have no right to discriminate and say one life is “worthier” than another.

Or take the concept of citizenship and civil rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and other documents outlining what Isaiah Berlin called “negative freedoms.” This, too, relies absolutely on the idea that all human beings, being citizens, are equal before the law, which in turn assumes an important degree of moral equality.

Remove the principle of human moral equality and both collapse. To speak of individual rights while also arguing for the moral inferiority of certain human beings is impossible. Moral equality and rights are either universal or they are special pleading for privilege in the original sense of the term — “private law” for the fortunate. As Lincoln noted in regard to slavery, this is a difference that cannot be split. It is one or the other.

Furthermore, as this principle is the cornerstone of the liberties and rights conservatives hold so dear, you would think they would fight the hardest to protect it.

The Conservative Abandonment of Equality

But too often this is not the case, especially when it comes to black Americans. Here, conservatives have a sorry record of either denying moral equality or suspending it.

One of the clearest examples is the right-wing obsession with racial IQ differences, an interest that is simply impossible to chalk up to a desire to be provocative or “merely seek out the truth, no matter how much it hurts.” In this, too many on the right betray their desire to believe human beings are not equal, and that some people are more “worthy” than others. The lip service they provide to deny this is simply not convincing.

The repeated refusal on the part of conservatives to take constitutional safeguards in the wars on crime and drugs seriously also suggests that the belief in moral equality has its limits on the right. Whether for genuine if misplaced fear of crime or outright hostility, the principle once again gets suspended whenever the chips are down. Unlike with Lincoln, lots of mental acrobatics are required to explain why equality suddenly does not apply, but the denial happens all the same.

What this makes clear is that while human moral equality is a necessary part of conservative philosophy with regard to race, it is far from sufficient. Something is preventing too many on the right from moving toward an emotionally invested and rigorous defense of the principle, as opposed to a mere abstract belief to be suspended when convenient.

The First-Person Plural

In his defense of the nation-state, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton argued that the founding principle of a state is a sense of community and togetherness, a “first-person plural” or “we” which presupposes any and all subsequent discussion about the country — its past, present, and future, and the relations of the people who constitute that community. As Scruton noted, it was the Constitution’s preamble of “We, the People” which allowed for the rest of the document to follow, an agreement that the rights enumerated were not abstract philosophy but a social covenant between Americans.

The failure of some conservatives to include black Americans within the “first-person plural” makes it hard for them to fully apply the principle of human moral equality to them. Too much conservative discussion of black Americans takes place as though discussing people in a foreign country or from another planet, rather than fellow citizens. The imagined “real America” — in the minds of both pundits and many conservative voters — typically does not fully include black Americans, seeing them as a tolerated guest at best and a barely wanted presence at worst.

And this is not just something conservatives are guilty of — see Noah Berlatsky’s piece for Arc on how this is happening even within socialism.

This is wrong both factually and morally. For a start, black Americans, especially those descended from slaves and pre-1865 freedmen, are some of the most natively anchored Americans around and have known no other home for centuries, for better or worse. They fought in all America’s wars even when denied rights they deserved. Their struggle for integration and acceptance has overwhelmingly used American language and been based on American principles. If any group earned the right to be considered fully American, it is they.

It is also wrong in terms of the often-used shibboleth of “western civilization,” which far too many on the right abuse as code for “white-skinned civilization.” Civilizations are often broader and bigger than the people who formed them. Middle Easterners and Africans were a core part of Rome and later Byzantium. Ethiopia was a Christian kingdom centuries before Scandinavia.

Western civilization is based on universal principles that all can enjoy and contribute to — as the Jewish Sages said of the Torah: “All who wish may come and partake.” Witness the success of liberal democracy throughout the globe and among many peoples despite massive differences in history and culture.

Final Thoughts

The principles of human moral equality and civic community are the foundation of any discussion of race. They must be presupposed and held to be axiomatic — and, if challenged openly, they must be defended rigorously and repeatedly. We are not pure reasoning beings, and if we are to have better race relations, then we must accept wholeheartedly that an American is an American is an American. His rights are my rights and vice versa. When he is abused, a member of my community is being harmed.

All of this should be obvious. It would seem the task of the conservative in this day and age is to remind everyone of what they should already know.

This is the fourth entry in Avi Woolf’s series tackling the issue of race in America from a conservative perspective. Read the previous entries here:

Part I: “Conservatives Must Face Black America’s Dark Mirror

Part II: “The Conservative Obsession With Law And Order

Part III: “Reparation, Restitution, Reconciliation — A Conservative Ponders

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