Monday, 27 October 2014

Common Sense Equality

To the second of my principles: Common Sense Equality.

Equality is a troublesome concept. To the political right, equality is a dirty word. The idea is vague and shadowy, but it threatens them and their privileges. It’s outside their paradigm, their way of thinking. So they ignore it, deny its validity, or suppress discussion of it, as far as they can.

The political left, on the other hand, do take on board the idea of equality. But then, seemingly failing to understand the difference between justice and equality, they pervert the idea into an excuse to harm good people. In the name of ideals like “equality of outcome” or “equality of opportunity,” the left seek to create both inequality and injustice.

An example: Suppose A and B do similar jobs, but A is much better at the job than B. Perhaps he has more experience, or is more conscientious, or has developed his talents further, or is a self-starter, or works quicker or harder than B; or, perhaps, several of these. So A fairly earns – say – twice as much as B. But the political left see this as an inequality to be “rectified.” They want to better B at the expense of A. So they authorize someone – let’s call them C – to take away some of A’s earnings, and re-distribute them to B.

Now this is an inequality, and far bigger than the one we started with. C has acquired a “right” to take away and re-distribute A’s earnings; yet A has no such “right” to take away C’s earnings and re-distribute them to B, or whomever else he wishes. It’s an injustice, too; for A has done no-one any harm, and so he deserves not to be harmed.

In reality, the remedy in this situation lies with B. He should watch what A does well, and make himself more like A. In time, perhaps, he will come to compete with A, and – in an extreme case – may even take over his job.

Neither the political right nor left offer a helpful view on equality. Yet my common sense tells me that in one very strong sense at least, we human beings are all equal. Although each of us is different and unique, we’re all morally equal; we all have the same moral rights. I express this in my Principle of Common Sense Equality:

What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa.

This kind of equality is usually called equality before the law. The idea being, that the same law and the same rules should apply to all of us. It is an essential part of the so called “rule of law.”

Equality before the law does, indeed, tally with my common sense view of equality. But my Principle is more primitive than law. It applies not only inside legal systems, but even prior to, or in the absence of, any framework of law.

Some will ask, under common sense equality, how can there be a justice system? And in particular, how can some have a right to be judges over others? For if A has a right to judge B, doesn’t B have an equal and opposite right to judge A?

My answer to this is that Common Sense Equality, my second principle, is subordinate to Common Sense Justice, my first. Otherwise put: Justice trumps equality. And so, allowing some to be judges over others doesn’t contradict common sense equality, provided those judges are entirely, and always, focused on delivering objective, common sense justice.

Some, however, will disagree more fundamentally with this kind of equality. They may make the Orwellian claim that some are more equal than others. But they must answer: exactly who is “more equal?” What do the more equal have the right to do, that the less equal do not? When? And why? And if they think some should be treated as “less equal,” and allowed less moral rights than others, they why should they themselves not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

Please don’t underestimate how radical this Principle is. For it denies any claim by political officials of any right to do things which other people may not. It does not suggest that an official, such as a policeman, may not sometimes be better equipped to do a particular act in a particular situation than another person. But it affirms that what is right for that policeman to do, would be right for anyone else to do in the same situation. And vice versa.

The Principle can be applied to other political acts, too. For example, taxation. Now taxation, obviously, isn’t for the sole purpose of objective, common sense justice. In fact, most taxation has exactly the opposite effect; it re-distributes wealth away from those who justly earn it, and towards the politically hip and their supporters. Therefore, in this case, equality can’t be trumped by justice. So we can apply the Principle in full force, with the following effect: If they have a right to tax me, I must have an equal and opposite right to tax them.

As another example, consider the routine interception of our e-mails. Plainly, this can’t be for reasons of common sense justice. For if it were, it would only ever be used against those reasonably suspected, on the basis of objective evidence, of having committed, of committing or of planning to commit some real crime. Therefore, again the Principle applies in full force. If they have a right to intercept our e-mails, we must have a right to intercept theirs.

The political class try to make out that “national security,” or some other such ruse, demands that they must know about everything each of us is doing or planning to do. But we have an opposite, and far stronger, argument. That is, that our security against them and their kind requires that we must have the right to know about everything they are doing, or planning to do, to us.

Furthermore, my Principle goes directly against two of the historical guiding ideals of political states. Namely, sovereign immunity, the idea that officials cannot be brought to justice for their offences; and irresponsibility, the idea that the state isn’t responsible for damage it causes. My Principle goes directly against the ancient mantra: “The king can do no wrong.”

The law

I’ll take this a step further. From common sense equality, it follows that there exists a moral code of what is right and wrong. And this is independent of time, place, culture, or the social status of an individual. Otherwise put: Morality is universal.

To see this, try the following thought experiment. Take a large (large!) sheet of paper, and make two column headings: Act and Circumstance. Then write down pairs of acts and circumstances, in which the act is wrong under the circumstance, and should be prohibited. By common sense equality, any such prohibition must apply equally to all individuals. Continue until you have covered all such situations you can think of.

Then take another sheet (rather smaller), and do the same for acts which are required. In other words it’s wrong not to do the act under the circumstances. When finished, you have your moral code. The first sheet contains the prohibitions of that code, the second its mandates.

Of course, actually doing this will take lots of time and ink – probably more than you have available! Nevertheless, if common sense equality is right, this moral code must exist. I call it the law; or, the law of civil conduct.

Now you may ask, won’t each individual’s version of the law tend to reflect the particular culture from which that individual comes? Perhaps so; though, personally, I’d hope to be able to minimize the effect. Nevertheless, I’ll refine the thought experiment, by having it done a thousand times over.

Let a thousand greybeards scribble, I say, from as many different cultures as possible. And then we’ll take only those prohibitions and mandates which appear in all their screeds – or, at least, in a goodly proportion, say 95 per cent.

I’d expect that, provided all the beards are grey enough, there should be at least some moral rules which would survive this process. A strong candidate is Confucius’ Golden Rule, which has been generally accepted, in one form or another, by almost every religion and major culture. Three more contenders, from the Judaeo-Christian stable, are, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Thus, as the mathematician in me would say, the law exists, and is non-empty. QED.

Particular moral codes, of course, may include elements beyond this core. They may, for example, require observance of customs such as not eating pork or not drinking alcohol. Or they may demand particular religious formalities, or require that individuals subordinate their economic interests to those of others, or seek to minimize some “footprint” of some kind. However, all valid moral codes must include the common moral core, which is the law. And to try to browbeat or to force individuals, against their wills, to obey rules not part of this core, is itself immoral and against the law.

Those familiar with conventional philosophy may also ask, in mock American accents: “Does that make you a ‘deahntahlogist’ rather than a ‘cahnsequentialist?’” My answer is no. In fact, I consider the distinction between the deontologist who judges right by adherence to a moral code, and the consequentialist who judges it by consequences, to be a straw man. I think of myself as both. For, when judging any act, I take into account both bad consequences (which I call the civil law part) and immorality or bad motive (the criminal law part).

Is this concept, of the law, the same as what has traditionally been called natural law? My answer is, broadly, yes. I hesitate to give an unconditional “yes,” mainly because the phrase “natural law” seems to mean different things to different people. But in my view, the law is the code of conduct, which is natural to civil human beings.

And legislation made by governments is only valid, if it is consistent with the law. Or, in John Locke’s words, legislated laws are “only so far right, as they are founded on the law of Nature.” (Second Treatise, §12).

I also note that the law has no statute of limitations, since it applies to everyone at all times in all places. It doesn’t matter where, or how long ago, individuals broke the law; they still broke it.

And furthermore: What is right on a Tuesday, or in Antofagasta, cannot be wrong on a Sunday or in Antananarivo.

Similarly, the law is what it is. It can’t be changed to fit political agendas. Surely, its details can change as the law is applied to new situations. And very occasionally, it’s possible that new knowledge may become available, which enables a better understanding of what the law is. But it cannot be changed merely by the say-so or the legislative fiat of any politician or group of politicians. Otherwise put: the law can be discovered, but it cannot be invented.

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