Friday, August 15, 2008

The Principle of Moral Equality

Elshtain brings up an issue I often hear from the Left, “some among our critics point to America’s checkered racial history and argue that we have no right to criticize others for their inegalitarianism. This claim is tendentious. The critical question is not whether Americans behaved badly on the basis of race in the past. Instead, we should ask: What was it in the Western (and American) tradition that permitted or even required its citizens over time to examine their practices in light of basic founding principles and beliefs? In the West it has long been a basic view, at least since the inception of Christianity, that all human beings are created in God’s image and possess thereby a dignity that states do not confer and that states cannot withdraw. Commitment to this view took shape over time in the language of natural law, natural rights, and moral equality. The principle of moral equality was secured in revealed and natural theology and philosophy alike. The American founders, including the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, certainly knew that slavery could not be squared with the principle of moral equality, but they believed that it was politically expedient to do nothing to dislodge slavery at the inception of the republic in order to gain the support of the representatives from the slave-holding states for the Constitution.

“But, as Abraham Lincoln was to put it later, no nation can long exist half slave and half free. . . “

I have heard leftists argue that because we tolerated slaves in the past and because some in the America still hate blacks we have disqualified ourselves from making moral judgments or criticizing nations or groups which commit violent acts against us. But Elshtain’s analysis causes me to see this pattern in light of an earlier discussion. Christians say we are under Grace and not under Law. In Christianity one can expect to receive grace, to be forgiven for past sins. Only a legalist would say that there is no forgiveness or that some earlier act is an “unforgivable sin.” The Leftists who refuse to forgive America for past sins are legalists who believe there is no forgiveness and that they (they don’t say “we”) have committed an “unforgivable sin.” At least they are not willing to forgive us. Elshtain would encourage them to look at the structure that provides the principle that was violated; the principle that established the definition of this particular sin. Over time we adhered more and more to that principle such that now there are only pockets of Americans who refuse to practice it.

Lawrence Helm

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