Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Equality as Unity of Nature

To ask whether men are essentially equal, in spite of all the accidents which cause inequality among them, is the same as to ask whether there is one human nature, common to all men. Anyone recognizes here a particular case of the problem of the universals,{1} to which logicians used to dedicate much labor and ingenuity. Without a reminder, no matter how brief, of the principles commanding this issue, such expressions as "human nature," "the unity of human nature," etc., would never have a definite sense.

The treatment of universality achieved decisive progress when Thomas Aquinas explained that the predicates "universal" and "individual" pertain not to the intelligible constitution of any nature but to the states in which natures exist, to their way of existence.{2} There are within each thing features which belong necessarily to its constitution, without which this thing would not be what it is and without the grasp of which it is not understood for what it is. Think of the plan of a building in the mind of the architect; when the phase of planning is over, the determination of the building with regard to situation, materials, arrangements, size, etc., is complete. The problem that remains to be solved is one of execution or realization; it concerns the difference between not to be and to be, it does not concern any of the constitutive features of "that which was to be."{3} All the difference between the building as planned in the architect's mind and the actually existing building concerns the way in which the thing exists, not the system of features that cause it to be what it is and to be intelligible as a definite sort of being. The actually existing building, in case of a real storm, shelters real humans, and the merely planned building shelters but imaginary dwellers against imaginary storms. Yet it is, in various states, the same building: same location, same size, same materials, same arrangement. How is it that one and the same thing admits of conditions so different from each other as merely objective existence in the mind and actual existence in the world of reality? What makes both conditions possible is that neither pertains to the necessary constitution of the thing. Examine this building in detail; you will find that it contains seven bedrooms, one living-room, one kitchen, one dining-room, etc.; but this inquiry, no matter how thorough, will never yield, as one feature among other features, "merely objective existence in the mind," "actual existence in the world of reality" -- such existential conditions are foreign to the constitution that causes a thing to be what it is. Similarly, the analysis of a nature will never yield, as a feature to be included in a definition or derived from it, the predicate "universal" or the predicate "individual." Let "man" be the universal under analysis; we may consider the features constitutive of its definition; then the properties connected with its differentia; then the properties connected with its genus; then its remote genera, etc. We shall find such intelligible features as rationality, progressivity, sociability, morality, sensibility, life, corruptibility, etc., but never "individuality" or "universality"; these are not features, but existential modalities. A nature is not, of itself, either universal or individual, and this is why it is capable of assuming both the state of individuality in the real and, in the mind, a state of universality produced by a process of abstraction and positive unification.

Asserting the reality of a human nature, one and the same in all men, does not imply belief in any Platonic type. It is in the mind alone that human nature, or any nature, possesses a condition of positive unity. In the real the features which make up the universal human nature exist in the state of individuality, which means that human nature exists in James as identical with the individual reality of James. The same human nature exists in Philip in the state of individuality, which means that it exists in Philip as identified with the individual reality of Philip. (Yet James is not identical with Philip. As John of St. Thomas says, two things each of which is identical with the same third thing are not necessarily identical with each other if the third thing is virtually multiple: "But the universal nature is virtually multiple because it is communicable to several things; therefore, identity with it does not entail the identity of the individuals among themselves."){4} Inasmuch as it is the same human nature, made of the same intelligible features connected with one another in the same system of intelligibility, which exists in the real as identified with James and as identified with Philip, James and Philip are one in nature and are equal in an essential and fundamental sense, regardless of the inequality of their individual properties.{5} From the very instant of their creation men are different and unequal in countless respects; yet it is highly proper that they should be described as created equal, for in each of them the same system of intelligible features supplies individual with ability to exist.

On the basis of such a philosophy of universality, to speak of the common nature of men makes sense; to speak of a natural foundation for the brotherhood of men makes sense; to speak of natural rights makes sense; to speak of rights belonging to all men on account of the unity of their nature makes sense; to speak of equal justice for all makes sense; but none of those things makes any sense in the framework of a consistently nominalistic philosophy.{6} If theoretical ideas were always allowed to unfold their consequences in the actual course of events, the universalism of the rights of man would not have come into historical existence at a time that was the golden age of nominalism. But the tendencies of a theory may be held in check by a conflicting moral environment. This is how the Declaration of Independence happened to be written by a disciple of Locke. In the course of the nineteenth century, changes in the moral situation gave nominalism a chance to assert its consequences with dreadful logic and efficacy. It is hardly possible for a man to pay more than lip service to a nominalistic concept of human nature so long as healthy feelings of justice and brotherhood entertain in his heart a strong sense for human unity. But if our heart is dedicated to the ambition of crushing a part of mankind, a theoretical analysis which renders meaningless the concept of the unity of nature is likely to be grasped with eagerness and to develop its implications with strict logic. The later phases of the process are illustrated by the view that there is a greater distance between the highest and the lowest human races than between the lowest races of men and the highest races of brutes; unrestricted exploitation of man by man would be rational and good so long as the exploiter is classified as a member of the highest race and the exploited as a member of the lowest.

At this point it is important to remove the tempting assumption that all practical consequences of man's unity of nature follow the same pattern and let themselves be formulated in precepts of the same type. In fact, two kinds of equalitarian rules are directly traceable to man's unity of nature. There are cases in which the just and the unjust are totally determined by those features which are common to all men. In such cases any consideration of inequality as a possible modifier of the rule is irrelevant and unethical; in such cases the rule of justice is unqualifiedly equalitarian. In other situations unity of nature commands an equalitarian tendency, a dynamism of equality, without, however, causing the consideration of inequality to be unjust or irrelevant.

1. Let us consider, first, the rights corresponding to man's tendency to survive. They are, in a basic sense, universal and hold equally for all men. Accordingly, the precept protecting human life against murder admits of no exception or qualification. In order that the universality and absoluteness of this precept should be unmistakable, careful phrasing is needed. Let it not be said that it is never lawful to put a man to death: this may be lawful if man is considered in the state of degradation produced by crime.{7} Notice also that exposing myself or my neighbor to danger of death is by no means the same thing as killing, even though danger be so great as to make death humanly certain. Properly understood, the proposition that it is not lawful to kill an innocent person expresses a necessity everlastingly belonging to the constitution of a universal essence. Every case of seeming exception is due to the unnoticed absence of some condition included in the correct formula of the precept. When the specified conditions are realized, the prohibition has the same meaning, the same essential significance, in all conceivable cases. Men are given equal protection by such a law. Age, social position, abilities, etc., do not matter. The prohibition of murder is not relative to any of the respects in which men are unequal but to features pertaining to the unity of human nature. Murdering an ignorant person is just as much a murder as murdering a well-educated person; education does not matter and degrees of education make no difference. Murdering a colored man is just as much a murder as murdering a white man; the law prohibiting murder is in no way relative to such contingencies as color or other so-called "race" features. Murdering a cancerous patient is just as much a murder as murdering a healthy person; it is not on account of health that murder is prohibited but on account of universally human features, common to healthy and to diseased persons. Murdering an unborn child is just as much a murder as murdering an adult man; the phase of life in which murder takes place is altogether incidental.{8}

2. As another example, consider the law of justice in exchanges. This law is known to be the strict equality of the exchanged values. It is seldom easy, it is often very difficult, to ascertain such equality with accuracy. Yet it is always possible to define upper and lower limits within which the desired figure is certainly comprised. The distance may be great between these limits, and there often is something tragic about the clumsiness of the instruments that we use, for lack of better ones, in our endeavor to determine what justice expects of us. But we do know with perfect clarity that the rule of commutative justice has absolutely nothing to do with the aspects of human reality in which humans are unequal. The value of a house is in no way modified by such diversities in the condition of the owner as his being an expert businessman or an orphan infant, a white man or a colored man, a genius or feeble-minded, a saint or a criminal, a wealthy man or a poor one.

These examples suffice to show that human equality as unity of nature determines, with regard to certain questions, answers that are absolute, unqualified, exclusive of the consideration of degrees -- answers, in short, that are equal. The truths expressed by these absolute answers are the foundation of the equalitarian dynamism which we shall now attempt to describe.

3. It was just recalled that exposing to death an innocent person -- who may well be myself -- is a moral act essentially different from the act of murdering an innocent person. It is always unlawful to murder one's self; it is not always unlawful to expose one's self to probable or inevitable death. It is always unlawful to murder one's innocent neighbor. It is not always unlawful to carry out action of such a nature as to entail inevitably the death of many innocent people. Concerning the moral essence "murder of the innocent," whose character is strictly determinate and intrinsically evil, men enjoy equal rights. But what about such a moral essence as "exposing the innocent to danger of death, or, more exactly, to danger of premature death"? Should it be said that with regard to this moral essence, which is not intrinsically evil and which is by all means less determinate, men are equal or not? Should it be said that public powers are obligated to see that all men enjoy equal protection against premature death? Do all men have an equal right to protection against the risk of dying prematurely?

In a still very recent past, man-killing economic inequalities were considered, in all societies, a matter of course and of everlasting necessity. Common opinion held that the shorter life-expectancy of the lower classes was an inevitable consequence of the structure of society, as determined by eternal laws. All men die some day; why should not death come earlier in one part of society? On this subject our conscience has changed and, no doubt, improved. We have come to understand that the grounds for the desirability of a long life-expectancy are the same in all classes. It is human nature which demands that human life be protected by the efforts of society; this demand holds equally for all the bearers of human nature. It does not follow that it is in the power of society to give, with no delay, equal protection to all. It does not follow that a society in which some sections of the population are much more exposed than others to premature death is necessarily iniquitous. But it does follow that society has an obligation never to fall away from the track leading to equal protection for all. Forty years ago a young man could not afford a case of lung tuberculosis unless his father had a considerable income. Tuberculosis in a poor family meant certain death. Today in technologically advanced societies young people attacked by this disease have almost an equal chance to recover whether the family is rich or poor, and this chance is very good. For some other diseases and conditions the prognosis still depends to a large extent upon financial means and is very unequally favorable according as means are great or poor.

Several aspects of contemporary history manifest, in the most impressive fashion, the equalitarian dynamism contained in the unity of human nature. It is important to remark, however, that the assertion of such dynamism often is lawfully restricted and delayed. If, for instance, in order to hasten the day when the death rate will be as low in the poorest section of society as it is today in the wealthiest, we had to suffer an enormously increased weight of bureaucratic organization, at the cost of a considerable amount of liberty, there might be a duty to accept, as on the battlefield, loss of life for the sake of liberty and community.

4. The aspiration of the mind toward truth would call for considerations similar to those just set forth. From the fact that the mind naturally strives for knowledge, it follows that everyone has a right not to be perverted by the pedagogy of the liars, but it does not follow that all persons have a strict right to an equal amount of education. Besides the ability to receive education is unequally distributed as well as qualitatively diverse, it is absolutely impossible for society to give all who are able to receive education at all degrees an equal chance to get it. Now let the question be stated in terms of tendencies. Not so long ago even elementary education was the privilege of a small minority; it is today available to all, at least in the best-organized communities. Very few received secondary education three generations ago; it is today very common in several nations. Opportunities for higher education have enormously increased, though they still are far from universal. Thus, with regard to the distribution of knowledge as well as with regard to the protection of life, the history of modern societies shows the operation of an equalitarian tendency. The many, who in the past were denied the good of knowledge, have a right to demand that society should promote the availability of education. This does not mean that any intellectually inclined person is entitled to educational facilities just equal to those enjoyed by the best-treated student of equal distinction, and it does not mean that, in order to hasten the day when anyone can acquire all the knowledge that his intellect is able to receive, the state should proceed recklessly, jeopardize freedom, overburden the taxpayer, give teachers wretched salaries and students wretched teachers, etc.

The equalitarian dynamism of human nature accounts for the fact that even in conservative circles social progress is held to be characterized, in a large measure, by the progress of equality. Conservatives seldom miss a chance to recall that social conservation, such as they understand it, is by no means incompatible with social progress. Though possibly not incompatible, social conservation and social progress are certainly opposite in some ways, for social conservation designates, among other things, the maintenance of advantages traditionally enjoyed by small minorities, e.g., the ownership of big land estates as the material basis for aristocracy, whereas social progress, according to conservatives and progressists alike, is inseparable from the promotion of equalitarian relations.

{1} John of St. Thomas Cursus philosophicus, Logica ii. 14. 2 (Turin: Marietti, 1930), I. 507, a 4): "Univocatio vero physica est aequalitas etiam in inferioribus contrahentibus superiorem rationem, qualis invenitur solum in speciebus atomis, quae equalitatem habent in individuis."

{2} On Being and Essence, chap. iii, trans. A. A. Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949), pp. 38-39: ". . . we can consider it [i.e., nature or essence] in two ways. First, we can consider it according to its proper meaning, which is to consider it absolutely. In this sense, nothing is true of it except what belongs to it as such; whatever else is attributed to it, the attribution is false. For example, to man as man belongs rational, animal and whatever else his definition includes, whereas white or black, or anything of this sort, which is not included in the concept of humanity, does not belong to man as man. If someone should ask, then, whether the nature so considered can be called one or many, neither should be granted, because both are outside the concept of humanity and both can be added to it. If plurality were included in the concept of humanity, it could never be one, although it is one inasmuch as it is present in Socrates. Similarly, if unity were contained in its concept, then Socrates and Plato's nature would be one and the same, and it could not be multiplied in many individuals.

"Nature or essence is considered in a second way with reference to the act of existing [esse] it has in this or that individual. When the nature is so considered, something is attributed to it accidentally by reason of the thing in which it exists; for instance, we say that man is white because Socrates is white, although whiteness does not pertain to man as man.

"This nature has a twofold act of existing, one in individual things, the other in the mind; and according to both modes of existing, accidents accompany the nature. In individual beings, moreover, it has numerous acts of existing corresponding to the diversity of individuals. Yet, the nature itself, considered properly -- that is to say, absolutely -- demands none of these acts of existing. It is false to say that the nature of man as such exists in this individual man, because, if existing in this individual belonged to man as man, it would never exist outside this individual. Similarly, if it belonged to man as man not to exist in this individual, human nature would never exist in it. It is true to say, however, that it does not belong to man as man to exist in this or that individual, or in the intellect. Considered in itself, the nature of man thus clearly abstracts from every act of existing, but in such a way that none may be excluded from it. And it is the nature considered in this way that we predicate of all individual beings."

{3} This phrase, to ti ên enai, is one of the synonyms of essence in Aristotle. The use of the past tense, ên, may be accounted for by an unexpressed reference to the production of things in time. The thing produced in time is to be before it actually is; in actual existence it may be considered as that which was to be.

{4} John of St. Thomas Cursus philosophicus, Logica ii, q. 3, a. 2, ed. Reiser (Turin: Marietti, 1930), p. 320, b, 11.

{5} Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i. 85. 7, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945): ". . . it is plain that the better the disposition of the body, the better the soul allotted to it; which clearly appears in things of different species. The reason for this is that act and form are received into matter according to the capacity of matter; and thus because some men have bodies of better disposition, their souls have a greater power of understanding."

{6} See J. Maritain, "Human Equality," in Ransoming the Time (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), pp. 1-32.

{7} Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. ii-ii. 64. 2, ad 3. The title of the article is "Whether it is lawful to put sinners to death?" Objection 3 attempts to exclude an answer in the affirmative by arguing that killing a man is an act wrong in itself. Here is Aquinas' answer: ". . . through sin man moves away from the order of reason and thereby falls away from the human dignity according to which man is naturally free and exists for his own sake [homo peccando ab ordine rationis recedit; et ideo decidit a dignitate humana, prout scilicet homo est naturaliter liber, et propter seipsum existens]; thus he falls, as it were, into the condition of servitude that belongs to brute animals and can be treated according as it is useful to others. . . Thus, although killing a man still enjoying his dignity is wrong in itself, killing a sinner may be good [Et ideo quamvis hominem in sua dignitatem manentem occidere sit secundum se malum tamen hominem peccatorem occidere potest esse bonum, sicut occidere bestiam]."

{8} All this does not mean that the seriousness of murder can never be increased by the circumstances. If the person murdered is the head of a family, the crime of murdering is complicated with a crime against wife and children.

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