It is important to account for equality and inequality amongst men in a way that does not deny the natural order of things but also does not degrade or take away from man’s dignity as a creature made in the image of God.
Doctrines of inequality are far from in vogue in the modern world. Everywhere modernity much prefers to hear about equality. We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal has become something of a catch-all phrase that supposedly solves man’s ills.
To be fair a theory of equality is a necessary element in the sciences of philosophy, anthropology, and civics. In what ways are all men equal? What does equality really mean? The problem comes in when equality is simply turned into a slogan or buzzword and emptied of any real meaning. To paraphrase George Orwell’s famous quip, “In a world of equals some equals become more equal than other equals.” Put bluntly: any theory of human equality must also be capable of credibly accounting for the very real fact of human inequality.
Attempting to clearly define the ways in which men are equal and unequal often invites resentment and condemnation. Nevertheless without a philosophy of inequality theories of equality become cheap and worthless. It is simply not possible to treat one and ignore the other.
There are ways in which all men do stand equal. A good example is that all men share the same essence. The essence or substance of a thing are the attributes which cannot be removed from it without redefining it. When considering man as such it is striking how few of his attributes are truly essential. His place of birth, his skin color, his family history, his income, and the number of children he has are all accidental qualities; that is to say, they are nonessential. Inequality amongst men is the norm in considering these accidental attributes. All of the factors listed above could be altered and he would still belong to the human race.
Boiled down to his bare essentials (essence) man is a creature possessing the powers of animation, will, reason, conscience, and intellect. These latter qualifiers are the things which belong to the essence of man and although some men seem to possess greater force of will or intellect than others there is an equality amongst men when considered in their “essence.”
But what does all this mean? What really is inequality? How can we define it? How can we speak about it? Is it ever legitimate? Is it ever illegitimate? The questions could go on. What answers do we have? Attempted solutions could be drawn from many corners but that which I propose today is drawn from the Westminster Larger Catechism.
The 126th question in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC going forward) asks, What is the general scope of the fifth commandment. The given answer is as follows:
The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors superiors, or equals.
The catechism’s reference to the fifth commandment is to the Bible’s famous Ten Commandments; the fifth of which commands us to honor our father and mother. The catechism, in dealing with this divine commandment, applies it to all human relations; stating that,
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts, and especially such as, by God’s ordinances, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.
By building upon God’s Word in this way the WLC is developing a theory of inequality. Question 126 posits that men relate to other men as inferior, superior, or equal. What is of the utmost importance is the prior qualifications it made by stating that the grounds for inferiority or superiority (inequality) are age, gifts, and places of authority; in other words, nonessential (accidental) attributes. This list is not exhaustive but it is indicative of what the WLC has in mind when speaking on the topic of inequality.
Let us not be hasty in forming a conclusionthough. The WLC has an extensive amount of material on the duties which superiors, inferiors, and equals owe to one another. Although too long to reproduce in full this material provides even more insight into the doctrine of inequality which is being set forward.
When asking “what is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors” the given answer states,
the honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior… willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels… fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places, etc….
The entirety of the answer is much longer than this but the segments reproduced here are sufficient to form a conclusion. When the Westminster Standards speak of human inequality it is speaking of man’s economic relations. When I say “economic relations” I mean something roughly equivalent to the already mentioned “accidental attributes.” However this may not be immediately clear to the modern reader. This is largely due to the improper way in which the term “economy” is commonly employed today.