Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Historical Survey of Four Different Aspects of Universal Equality

Universal equality has several different aspects. It can be arrived at as an ethical concept, an affirmation of our humanity and a moral vision of the world in which we live, from several different directions. This is because there are several different aspects of human nature and several different perspectives of the world in which we live. It is the several aspects of universal equality, however, that make it an accommodating or unifying moral foundation of government in a pluralist society.

Before developing an analytical framework for moral and political philosophy, it will be helpful, as a point of reference, to look at four different aspects of universal equality in the historical context of four different ethical and legal systems. Within Western civilization there developed several sources of moral authority for law and several corresponding ethical and legal systems. Canon Law, Roman Law, English common law, and the social contract theory associated with constitutional law each had a different primary source of moral authority. Each of these systems of law was, consequently, based on a different type of ethical system, and each focused primarily on a different facet of human nature. Constitutional democracy integrates aspects of these four ethical and legal systems as they relate to universal equality and the coercive powers of government.

“It is the several aspects of universal equality that make it an accommodating or unifying moral foundation of government in a pluralist society. ”

Judeo - Christian and Canon Law, for example, was based on the authority of God and related primarily to what it understood to be the soul of man. Its ethic is deontological, deon meaning “duty” in Greek. That is, it is based on a universal duty “to love God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev 19:18, Deut 6:5, Lk 10:27, Mk 12:29–31). Canon Law contains universal ethical principles based on a reverence for God and reciprocity towards one’s fellow man. The equal dignity and worth of all persons in this religious system derives from a belief that God not only created humanity, but that man and woman were also made in God’s image (Gen 1:27). Equality is intrinsic and not derived from one’s individual attributes, but from the relationship between God and humanity.

Roman Law, on the other hand, incorporated significant aspects of natural law based on the authority of a perceived natural moral order in the universe. Such a natural moral order could be understood by all persons, it was believed, because all humans share a capacity for right reason, an ability to know right from wrong. All of the various people within the vast Roman empire, for example, could be expected to learn and know that is wrong to steal. The ethical system of natural law is primarily normative (based on norms or ideals). Universal equality in classical civilization is based on all human beings having a capacity for right reason and also on a concept of reversibility which requires a rational imagination and empathy.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, described reversibility as one of two major elements in Greek tragedies. The second element is catharsis, part of which is a realization that we all, even heroes and kings, have character flaws and are also subject to fate, both of which can lead to a reversal of fortunes. An ethic based on reversibility is not just classical.. In the first century, Rabbi Hillel taught, “What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. This is the whole Law, the rest is commentary” (Shab. 31a). It is also the basis, however, of the Kantian categorical imperative that one cannot place oneself outside of morality without implicity permitting others to do the same. Reversibility was also a primary moral reason in the thought of both Jefferson and Lincoln in their opposition to slavery (Basler 1953, vol. II, 532; Jefferson [1785] 1972, 163). The more recent concept of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) of justice as fairness, with an original position in which one does not know either his or her fate or circumstances in life’s game, is an extension of the concept of reversibility.

Common law in English feudal society derived its moral authority from yet another source—not from God or nature, but from social custom and tradition. This was primarily a communitarian ethical system. It related to the social conscience of the people based on their ethical concepts of rights and responsibilities in society. Traditional English rights pro- gressively became a basis of communal solidarity.

Finally, the social contract theory associated with constitutional law derives its moral authority beginning with the individual in a state of nature concerned primarily about his own safety and happiness. Its very premise is not only that all are free and equal in a state of nature but that everyone is also endowed with natural rights which they are entitled to defend. Such a theory is based on individual concerns and contract. The universality of social contract theory as it applies to democratic processes and constitutional law, however, makes it essentially a humanitarian ethic. It contains an ethic of universal equality based on what we now refer to as human rights and a just claim to resist the violation of those rights.

American constitutional democracy integrates and balances these four ethical systems as they apply to the several aspects of universal equality and the coercive powers of government. The accommodating common moral concept is not just a deontological ethic, with concepts of reverence and reciprocity, relating to God and a person’s soul; nor is it just a normative ethic based on concepts of right reason and reversibility, relating to a perceived moral order in nature and our capacity to understand that order with our reason; nor is it just a communitarian ethic, with concepts of social rights and responsibilities, as they relate to the several aspects of society and our social conscience; nor is it only a humanitarian ethic, with a concept of human rights and the right to resist tyranny, relating to our individual lives and our fundamental needs and desires. The accommodating or unifying moral concept is universal equality which can be derived analytically, and has been derived historically, from each of these sources of authority and aspects of human nature.
























Open Access also at moralfoundations.com

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