By Nature Equal

By Nature Equal: The Anatomy of a Western Insight

John E. Coons
Patrick M. Brennan
With a foreword by John Witte
Series: New Forum Books
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 360
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7scmp
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  • Book Info
    By Nature Equal
    Book Description:

    What do we mean when we refer to people as being equal by nature? In the first book devoted to human equality as a fact rather than as a social goal or a legal claim, John Coons and Patrick Brennan argue that even if people possess unequal talents or are born into unequal circumstances, all may still be equal if it is true that human nature provides them the same access to moral self-perfection. Plausibly, in the authors' view, such access stems from the power of individuals to achieve goodness simply by doing the best they can to discover and perform correct actions. If people enjoy the same degree of natural capacity to try, all of us are offered the same opportunities for moral self-fulfillment. To believe this is to believe in equality.

    This truly interdisciplinary work not only proposes the authors' own rationale but also provides an effective deconstruction of several other contemporary theories of equality, while it engages historical, philosophical, and Christian accounts as well. Furthermore, by divorcing the "best" from the "brightest," it shows how descriptive equality acquires practical significance. Among other accomplishments, By Nature Equal offers communitarians a core principle that has until now eluded them, rescues human dignity from the hierarchy of intellect, identifies racism in a new way, and shows how justice can be freshly grounded in the conviction that every rational person has the same capacity for moral excellence.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2288-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND APOLOGY
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    John E. Coons
  4. FOREWORD
    (pp. xvii-2)
    John Witte Jr.
  5. INTRODUCTION IN SEARCH OF A DESCRIPTIVE HUMAN EQUALITY
    (pp. 3-16)

    THIS BOOK EXAMINES the belief inhuman equality—the common conviction that equality is a fixed characteristic of human persons. It scarcely touches the political and moral ideal—also called “equality”—that would make our lives more nearly the same. Just why a uniformity of economic and social circumstance would represent a hope for the world is to us a mystery. Insofar as we understand what egalitarians seek, it is hardly worth the hoping. People who are hungry do not need equality; they need bread and respect. To offer them sameness of whatever sort is to mistake both the human...

  6. PART 1: HUMAN EQUALITY:: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
    • 1 WHAT HAS BEEN SAID?
      (pp. 22-38)

      IN A 1987 ESSAY the philosopher Harry Frankfurt noted that the card catalogue in Yale’s main library contained 326 book entries under the subject heading “Equality”,¹ a decade later the catalogue had been supplanted by a computer that registered many more than 400 books under this label. This spectacular overdose can be credited to the current generation; from 1977 to 1987, books in English were catalogued under this heading at a rate of 40 per year.² And no one has tallied the articles and chapters on equality that could outnumber the books 25 to 1.

      What, then, could justify yet...

    • 2 THE HOST PROPERTY
      (pp. 39-65)

      THIS CHAPTER and the next contain the heart of the idea. Here we ask what conventional “human equality” means. Concluding that the convention expresses a belief in an existent human relation, we go on to ask what this would require. Throughout we make judgments as to what evidence is relevant to these issues and roughly how each piece should be weighed. We identify a set of five criteria for a plausible meaning of “human equality.” These criteria emerge from our own experience and reflection, both on what we hear on the street and on the little help to be found...

    • 3 MAKING THE HOST PROPERTY UNIFORM
      (pp. 66-90)

      A ROBBER BACKS his way out of a bank juggling shopping bags stuffed with cash. Bundles of bills spill onto the floor. One is retrieved by a lawyer who promptly returns it to the bank. Another is snatched by a socialist who pockets it and passes it on to a hungry family. Still another is recovered by an imbecile who returns it to the robber. The episode ends when a fourth citizen seizes a gun from a fallen policeman and blazes away—aiming at the robber’s foot but killing both the robber and the imbecile.

      What has this tale to...

  7. PART II: COULD THE PHILOSOPHERS BELIEVE IN HUMAN EQUALITY?
    • 4 COULD THE ENLIGHTENMENT BELIEVE? INDIVIDUALISM, KANT, AND EQUALITY
      (pp. 101-122)

      AT THE THRESHOLD of modernity looms the great Hobbes, the architect of liberal man. Of the Enlightenment moral philosophers, he was both the earliest and the plainest. Counselor to kings and prudent survivor of revolutions, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) initiated his own insurrection in the Western conception of the moral self. His candid—even crude—style is an advantage to us. He set great store upon simplicity of method. Supposing himself to stand in the tradition of Euclid, he proceeded from axioms and theorems that he declared self-evident; he is seldom subtle, and the butcher can hear him plainly. We...

    • 5 NATURE, NATURAL LAW, AND EQUALITY
      (pp. 123-144)

      IN COONS’S FAVORITE movie Humphrey Bogart defends his taste for gin, explaining to Katharine Hepburn that it is “human nature” for man (or at least men) to drink. She demurs: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”¹ In a novel dear to Brennan, Lord Henry rejects the precious moralizing of Basil: “If you want to mar a nature, you have merely to reform it.”²

      Whether nature is a clue to the good (or indeedisthe good) has engaged the mind of the West since antiquity. The Greeks conceived the question and elaborated...

  8. PART III: COULD THE CHRISTIANS BELIEVE IN HUMAN EQUALITY?
    • 6 THE FRAMEWORK FOR A CHRISTIAN OBTENSIONALISM
      (pp. 148-163)

      OBTENSION—striving for the real good—is the mood music of Christian morality whose foremost practitioner stressed the possibility of holiness for the most limited, ignorant, sinful, and misguided; in doing so, he nearly reversed the connection that antiquity had assumed between intellect and self-perfection. Paradoxically, Jesus threatened human equality by hinting the moral advantage of simpler persons; where worldly options are less distracting, pride’s hold is loosened.¹ Happily for human equality, Christians seem agreed that the poor and ignorant are sufficiently afflicted by other temptations peculiar to their state. In any event, the unfathomable distribution among social classes of...

    • 7 REPAVING THE ROAD TO HELL: THE PELAGIAN ISSUES
      (pp. 164-190)

      WE PROMISED a rational consideration of the theological hurdles Christianity raises for human equality. The story cannot, however, be merely academic and bloodless, if only because all Christian moral theology bears the imprint of Augustine (354–430), that “troubled person”³ and saint who, as bishop of the remote north African city of Hippo, formed the moral intellect of Europe.⁴ The mind and passion of Augustine influenced every Christian doctrine significant to our theme, ever urging against equality. This chapter and the next ask Augustine’s reasons and the extent to which the major Christian churches have unlearned them during the last...

    • 8 THE REPAVING PROJECT, PART II: AN EQUAL-OPPORTUNITY CREATOR
      (pp. 191-214)

      GENESISHAS SCARCELY reported the flood when the question arises whether God counts good intention. Abraham, to avoid personal risk, pretends that his wife Sarah is his sister. Misled by this fib, King Abimelech plans what objectively would be adultery with Sarah. Observing the impending shame, God first tells Abimelech that his life is forfeit, then relents, being persuaded that the king’s innocent intent ought to count. God’s resolution leaves the final lesson in doubt: “I know that thou hast acted with a clear conscience; that is why I preserved thee from sinning against me, and would not let thee...

  9. PART IV: GOOD PERSONS AND THE COMMON GOOD
    • 9 HARMONIES OF THE MORAL SPHERES
      (pp. 218-231)

      BELIEF IN HUMAN EQUALITY lodges each of us simultaneously in two spheres that we label the first and second kingdoms. Thefirstis the interior realm in which the self exercises that capacity for moral choice that is the ground of the relation of equality. Thesecondis the world of the Other whose practical good we are obligated to seek. Moral decision affects these two spheres in related but distinctive ways. When I make my subjective choice whether to shoulder (or ignore) lateral obligation, this works my own moral perfection (or regression). By contrast, in the second kingdom my...

    • 10 HARVESTS OF EQUALITY
      (pp. 232-260)

      WE HAVE ARGUED that thesubjectivityof our power to work our moral self-perfection has a positive, practical implication; it is in harmony with the common good. Now we must ask the same about itsuniformity. Does it matter for good or ill that humans possess this capacity for moral fulfillment in the same degree? This is the final question about human equality.

      Recall our assumption that the capacity for moral self-perfectioncoulddiffer in degree from person to person; uniformity is not part of its definition.¹ Nevertheless, if human equality is to be, this variable capacity must be uniform...

    • NOTES
      (pp. 261-348)
    • INDEX
      (pp. 349-362)
    • Back Matter
      (pp. 363-363)