Equality, More or Less

RICHARD REEVES

May 21, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- The most troubling and troublesome political question of the next century or so is this: Are all men really created equal -- and women, of course?

At least three major church groups -- the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church -- are already conducting formal studies of the implications of new genetic knowledge on the most basic of moral concepts, beginning with ''sin.''

Is it a sin if you can't help yourself, if you're just playing the genetic hand God dealt you? That is the question at the heart of moral debates about whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a matter of genetic predisposition. That particular religious (or scientific) controversy, like thousands before it, has now crossed the very thin lines between religion, politics and law.

Arguments over matters of free will and predetermination, or over heredity and environment, are not new. What is new is the scientific crossing of genetic frontiers. Just reading newspaper accounts of breakthroughs, you get the idea that scientists of genetics are working up to giving parents and political leaders little road maps of lives unlived. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing; a little more is both thrilling and frightening. We are entering a new wilderness.

Americans have tried to push away questions of heredity (or genetics) in the discussion of equality and democracy over the past few decades at the same time that questions of race and poverty drove much of American politics and law. Scientists or polemicists who pushed certain theories about inherited intelligence or strength or courage, for instance, have generally been shunned and shunted aside -- prudently, I think. But it is almost certainly too late for that now.

The idea of equality is traceable to both the Greeks and Hebrews in the fifth century B.C. With the Greeks it may have been related to Euclid and his geometry. With the Hebrews it came with the belief that all men were created by one God. But except perhaps in the eyes of God, no one ever believed that all men (and women) were the same.

''Equality,'' said Aristotle, ''consists in the same treatment of similar persons.'' Now there's a line that can mean all things to all men and women. But it is also a line that provided an essential stepping stone to the development of politics and law, centered on both the worth and will of individuals and political representation by numbers.

Then Christianity dominated the West as both a religious and governmental institution -- as much of Islam sees itself today. St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, knew a useful idea when he saw one, saying: ''There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither bond nor free. . . . Ye are all one in Christ Jesus.'' Then Protestants came along 1,500 years later and used that thought to attack the inequality enjoyed by the pope in Rome.

After another couple of hundred years, ideas of equality were translated into different kinds of revolutions in England, America and France. The Enlightenment made sense of the obvious inequality of men's talents and conditions by inventing ''environmentalism'' -- the first use of the word -- saying that, yes, men were born equal, but they were then formed by different education and life experience. That theory was radically worked and exploited by both Marx and Freud.

Then, in the United States in the 1960s, that kind of environmental thinking evolved into the notion that equal opportunity alone was not enough, that people from the meanest environments had to be specially educated and trained to be able to recognize and seize opportunities.

So here we are, with all of that being pushed behind us, or at least being powerfully challenged, by new science -- as the new science of Euclid and, later, Galileo, and the new morality of the ancient Hebrews once challenged the older orders of their times. Genetic research and the possibility of marking children for life before they begin living are surely going to challenge and change political orthodoxy -- for better or worse.

In political terms, the genetic revolution -- the knowledge to change the way people see themselves and others -- could well be the most important political event or series of events since the Russian Revolution, or even since the French Revolution. It could be very rough.

But whether or not we were created equal, we are all here together, and most of us have a big stake in harmony -- and not everything in life is predetermined. R.R. Palmer, a Yale historian who has written about equality, said this:

''Given the actual disparities among persons, belief in equality requires an act of choice, by which some differences are minimized or ignored . . . On the current American scene, differences of race may be minimized and differences of aptitude or performance highly valued, with persons of similar aptitude or performance of whatever race receiving similar treatment.''

Which would bring us right back to Aristotle. Not bad company.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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