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Is it "self-evident" that "all men are created equal"?

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From http://www.flickr.com/photos/93090426@N02/9209198407/: We hold these truths to be self-evident...
We hold these truths to be self-evident...
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We hold these truths to be self-evident... by Alex_Lewis116

Thomas Jefferson's words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence seem clear: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal. . . .". There is a majesty to this language. Although the Declaration goes on to list specifically American complaints against British rule, it begins with a universal claim about human beings in any society.

However, the meaning of this universal claim has been contested since the beginning of the American republic. For instance, it took the horrible carnage of civil war and decades of political struggle to finally settle that "Men" in the Declaration designates humans of all races and both sexes.

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What about the word "equal"? In a previous column (Aug. 7) I argued that wealthy people are often treated very differently than the poor in our criminal justice system. Everyone would agree that this goes against the equality of all "Men" proclaimed by the Declaration . But what about economic inequality?

It's obvious that there must be some degree of economic inequality in order to have an incentive system that rewards people whose special talent and initiative benefit everyone. Even the lowest income groups would be worse off without such a system. But how do we make this inequality consistent with the Declaration's claim that we are all equal? Does it matter how great the economic inequality gets?

Here is a snapshot of income and wealth inequality in the U.S. today:

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-    "In the US the share of [total] national income going to the top 1% has doubled since 1980 from 10 to 20%. For the top 0.01% it has quadrupled to levels never seen before." ( Oxfam , 1/13)

-    "From 1983--2010, 38.3 percent of the growth in wealth or net worth went to the top 1 percent and 74.2 percent to the top 5 percent. The bottom 60 percent, meanwhile, suffered a decline in wealth." ( State of Working America , 12 th ed.)

-    "While social mobility and economic opportunity are important aspects of the American ethos, the data suggest they are more myth than reality. In fact, a child's family income plays a dominant role in determining his or her future income, and those who start out poor are likely to remain poor." ( Brookings Institution , 6/13)

-    In the top 350 American firms, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio rose from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 273-to-1 in 2012. ( Economic Policy Institute , 6/13)

What we see here is a society splitting up into an affluent minority and a low-paid, economically insecure underclass (including 50 million poor who are no longer even mentioned by politicians). Associated Press writer Hope Yen, using AP survey data, reports that " Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives."

As Henry Blodget, the editor of Business Insider , put it: "Our current system and philosophy is creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs." This is not what our country is supposed to be about.

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Let's look again at what the Declaration could mean by saying we are all "created equal." The equality is not quantitative, as in equal height or strength. People are unequal or different in countless ways, many of which play a large role in their social and economic status.

I think the conservative website FreedomWorks gets it right: "This bold assertion insists that no one life is more valuable than the next. . .". The equality is one of value. The Declaration says this value is so great that each person is thereby equally "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

When it says that all are "created" equal, the Declaration is talking about an intrinsic value more fundamental than such things as wealth, status or talent. This value or worth should not be confused with market value such as the price that a worker commands in a labor market. This price (salary or compensation) is an external value depending on, and shifting according to, the demand for kinds of labor.

The Declaration's "equality" is a secular, Enlightenment reflection of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: "whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

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I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. I also am a regular columnist for The Danville Advocate-Messenger,the local paper in what was my home town (I now live in Connecticut. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically (more...)

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