Created Equal?

Independence Day 2003


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" is one of the most evocative and profound claims made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States 227 years ago. Now some policy intellectuals are claiming that this self-evident truth is imperiled by the prospect of human genetic engineering that could shatter human equality as some citizens take advantage of the new technologies while others do not. "The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence can't withstand the destruction of the idea that humans are in fact equal," claims environmental writer Bill McKibben in his new anti-progress book, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.

But hold on. Are humans "in fact equal"? After all, we look around and see that there is nothing at all self-evident about physical human equality or equality of status; some people are short, some tall, some fat, others thin, some strong, others weak, some poor, others rich, some brilliant and others dim. In other words, what we see is not self-evident equality, but human particularity and human individuality.

The opponents of biomedical progress like McKibben are making the mistake that the ideal of political equality rests on the notion of actual equality. That's nonsense. The ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment's insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his or her values and beliefs on others. In other words, "I don't know what the absolute truth is, but I also know for sure that you don't know what absolute truth is either." The recognition of this necessary equality of ignorance about absolute truths is one the insights that undergirds the Declaration's assertion that all men are created equal. This moral discovery by the Founders opened the space that has allowed human individuality and human particularity to flourish as never before in history.

So McKibben and his fellow travelers are just wrong. And if we somehow reverted to the notion that human rights are based on physical equality, political equality would not long stand. Political equality has never rested on claims about human biology. After all, humanity had the same biology we have today during the long millennia in which slavery, patriarchy, and aristocratic rule were social norms.

With respect to political equality, genetic differences, even engineered ones, are differences that make no difference.