This 4th of July, while navigating the DC subway which, in a surprise to absolutely no one, was packed tighter than a can of sardines, I was reflecting on the words that started it all.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These words are often lauded, especially today, but have you ever sat down to consider what they actually mean, let alone if they are true? Vice President John C. Calhoun did. He concluded:
“Taking the proposition [that “all men are born free and equal.”] literally (it is in that sense it is understood), there is not a word of truth in it. It begins with “all men are born,” which is utterly untrue. Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men. And concludes with asserting that they are born “free and equal,” which is not less false. They are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom, being destitute alike of the capacity of thinking and acting, without which there can be no freedom. Besides, they are necessarily born subject to their parents, and remain so among all people, savage and civilized, until the development of their intellect and physical capacity enables them to take care of themselves. They grow to all the freedom of which the condition in which they were born permits, by growing to be men. Nor is it less false that they are born “equal.” They are not so in any sense in which it can be regarded; and thus, as I have asserted, there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition, as expressed and generally understood.”
Now, obviously Calhoun, a villain decried in every APUSH course worth its salt, cannot actually be correct, but what exactly is wrong with his argument. This proposition is so ingrained in the minds of modern Americans, from MJT to AOC, that when you try to defend it for the first time you will find your mind going in circles, using appeals to universal equality to justify universal equality. How would you convince someone who didn’t believe in universal equality that they were wrong? In what sense can those august words be true, as well as inspiring?
If you pay close attention to Calhoun’s argument, you will notice that he doesn’t quite quote the declaration word for word. Instead, he replaces “created” with “born.” And he proceeds to provide trivial proof that infants are neither free nor equal. Certainly, men are not equal in their intelligence, wisdom, courage, virtue, likeability, or value to society (where value can equal either how important to society they are, or how much society cares what happens to them.) Perhaps, then, they are equal in that they equally deserve the care of society, that they all equally deserve happiness. But this, on introspection, does not seem to be what we mean. If “all men” are equal, then that must include Kim Jong Un and Mother Teresa. But yet who among us believes that society should treat the two of them the same, or that they equally deserve happiness?
Incidentally, arguing that “all men are created equal because they are made in the image of God,” doesn’t really help. Even if this is true, and good luck trying to convince someone who doesn’t accept the proposition of that, it doesn’t actually tell us what we mean by equal. Men are made in the image of God— so what? What new facts have we learned about reality once we know that?
That takes us back around to the word “created.” Calhoun goes on to defend his substitution of “created” with “born” by saying, “All men are not created. According to the Bible, only two, a man and a woman, ever were, and of these one was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense, as I have shown, either free or equal.”
Again, pay close attention to his wording. he interprets “all men were created equal” to mean “when all people were first created, they were created in the condition of equality.” That would seem to be the natural reading, but there are other ways to read it. Take the (slightly archaic) phrase “he was now created a Duke.” Clearly, the subject of the sentence (The Duke of Wellington, incidentally) already existed before he was “created” a duke. The creation didn’t make him, but it made him a thing.
So what if “all men are created equal” means “all men, who already exist, are created equal— that is, they go from a state of inequality to equality.” But what power would the founders have had to make people who were not equal, equal? And not just good men, or citizens, or some other subclass, but all of humanity, from the greatest saint to the most bloodthirsty dictator, in such a way that they could not forfeit this equality?
I would submit that the best definition of equality that makes sense, is actually true, and captures what we mean by the word is this: when we say people are equal, what we mean is that they all have a subjective experience, that they are sentient beings. that everyone, regardless of their other characteristics, has their own inner qualia, such that if you hurt them, there is not a mere machine that goes through the motions of being in pain, but an actual consciousness there to experience it. To say that all men are equal is to say that no one qualia’s internal experience is inherently more valuable than another’s. While we might trade off among the competing goods of each person, we are acknowledging that their wellbeing is something to be traded off, that it is a valuable thing that can only be justly traded for more of the valuable thing.
The reason why this is true, apart from any sophisticated religious, ethical, moral, or philosophical argument, is that from the outside it is the only coherent view for someone with human values to have. We do not know why we experience “our” subjective experiences, rather than those of someone else, and since whatever values we have seem to aim at improving our subjective well-being, as we perceive that, it follows that, in the abstract, what we want is to maximize the subjective well being of all sentient qualia, regardless of any other characteristics about them. It is in this sense that we are “created equal,” that, by having internal experience, all our other inequalities of ability and virtue are weighed out of the scale.
This interpretation, in addition to satisfying the above three points of making sense, being true (or at least defensible,) and actually describing what we mean by the phrase, strikes the exact middle ground the original declaration had to— that is, the interpretation is workable both within and outside of Christian theology. Within Christianity, this theory aligns with both theology and scripture. We are called to “love our neighbors as ourselves” because their internal experience is just as valuable, just as much an object whose well-being should be promoted, as ours. We should “do to others as we would have done to ourselves” for the same reason. Similarly, a God who believed in the value of every consciousness he created sounds like a prerequisite to a God willing to die for all of them, even the bad ones.
But, of course, the phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson, a deist. But the proposition, as I outlined above, still works without a God to intervene to do the creating. If we come to recognize the inherent value of every person, and act accordingly, then in a sense we are “creating” them as equal. Of course, within Christianity, this is us doing God’s work, with us being privileged to act as agents of his will, but it is we, Christians, deists, and atheists alike, who are choosing to do the creating.
This belief is implicitly ingrained in America’s fabric. The reason why our history has been one of expanding the circle of who is considered part of the national family is because of this driving proposition. Once you have, even in your heart, conceded the validity of this proposition, it is increasingly hard to deny anyone the chance to improve their subjective well-being, regardless of their race, sex, nationality, or anything else. One day, perhaps, we will, in thought, word, and deed, fully acknowledge the truth that all people have been created equal, that they are endowed by their creator (interpreted either as God first making consciousness, or humanity/America recognizing this equality and making it so, or all three) with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. When this is so, then indeed will it be morning in America.